McSweeney’s Quarterly is a finalist for the 2020 National Magazine Award for Fiction. The honor recognizes three stories we’ve published this year, by Mimi Lok, Lisa Taddeo, and Ope Adedeji. In celebration, we’ve made them available online.
IN THE CLOSET
by Mimi Lok
In the space of a few hours, Granny Ng was made an official member of the village. She was given her own blue tent, just like the others had—over a hundred of them dotted the southeastern side of Hong Kong Park like giant petals from outer space. That’s how they’d once seemed to her, in the days when she still lived with her son and daughter-in-law. Back then, she would take her morning stroll around the turtle pond with Maru, her daughter-in-law’s shih tzu. She’d occasionally look over to that strange blue sight, and whenever she saw people moving among the tents, she would turn away, embarrassed that she’d been staring. She had never given much thought to why people lived that way. Then one morning a middle-aged woman with a sleek black bob and a pink tracksuit stopped her at the turtle pond. The woman said she’d noticed her walking her dog there in the mornings, and asked if she was all right. She had her hand on Granny Ng’s arm and a concerned, hopeful look on her face. Granny Ng had to admit she was feeling hungry, having had only a few crackers for breakfast. The woman—she introduced herself as Kitty—seemed well—spoken and polite, so Granny Ng was surprised when, after answering a few questions about her home life, her new acquaintance led her toward the mass of blue tents. They stopped at an awning at the southern perimeter of the tents, where a short, silver-bearded man was stirring a pot of soup on a camp stove.
“Uncle Chow, this is Granny Ng,” said Kitty. “Her son and daughter-in-law want to kick her out of her apartment and put her in an old people’s home at the end of the month. She doesn’t want to go.”
Granny felt her cheeks warm with embarrassment. The silver-bearded man tasted a spoonful of the soup and nodded slowly, though it wasn’t clear if it was to himself or to Kitty. He turned abruptly, wiped his hands on the front of his overalls, and invited Granny Ng to sit on one of the plastic children’s stools dotted around the outdoor kitchen.
“Granny, take the weight off your feet. Kitty, give her some of this soup, will you?” He brought over another stool and sat facing her. “Well, Granny, I’m sorry to hear your son doesn’t want to take care of you. This kind of thing is getting more and more common these days.”
Granny Ng blinked at the bowl of beef soup in her hands and nodded.
“But the fact is that you still have somewhere to stay, true? None of the people here can say the same.”
Kitty looked concerned. “Tell him, Granny Ng. Tell Uncle Chow what you told me.”
The soup smelled so good to Granny Ng. She hadn’t had beef soup in years; her son and daughter-in-law were recent converts to Taoism, and had taken a three-year vow of vegetarianism. She brought the bowl to her lips, then hesitated. It was too hot to drink just like that, but she didn’t want to be rude. Then again, she’d burned her tongue several times that week to avoid her daughter-in-law hitting her for eating too slowly. She peered around hopefully for a spoon.
“Granny, please allow me to speak for you,” said Kitty. She squatted on the ground next to Granny Ng and looked imploringly at the silver-bearded man. “It’s terrible in there, Uncle Chow. The staff beat the old people and steal their valuables. They hide their letters and have to be bribed in order to hand them over. On visiting days, they put on a big show of caring for the residents so the children don’t get concerned, but as soon as they leave, it all starts again. We can’t let this poor granny end up in a place like that, can we? We can’t let her go from bad to worse.”
Uncle Chow scratched his beard. “Which old people’s home is this?”
“Does it matter?” Kitty sighed. Then she lowered her head, as if admitting defeat. “My mother was in that home.”
Uncle Chow considered Granny Ng as she blew on her soup. “How are you, Granny? Are you enjoying the soup?”
“It’s delicious,” she said, blowing harder on the soup. It was still too hot to taste. “The best I’ve ever had.”
“Uncle Chow here used to be a cook,” said Kitty. “He worked for some of the best hotels in the city.”
“Oh? How did you end up here?” asked Granny Ng.
When Uncle Chow smiled, she could see how densely packed his teeth were, like a dolphin’s. She imagined him pulling out one of his silver whiskers and flossing with it.
“Luck,” he replied.
“Luck?” said Granny Ng. “You think you’re lucky?”
“I didn’t say what kind of luck, Granny. Now drink up your soup. It should be cool enough now.”
Uncle Chow and Kitty pitched a tent for Granny Ng close to the center of the settlement. Although it wasn’t something she usually did, Kitty accompanied Granny Ng to the small apartment she shared with her son and daughter-in-law and helped her gather some belongings into a duffel bag. It was clear that Granny Ng hadn’t packed a bag in some time; Kitty had to keep telling her to put things back, or explain that some things, like the rice cooker and the ironing board, were not practical to bring. Before they left, Granny Ng wrote a note for her son and taped it to the refrigerator door:
I have received a call from a relative who is very sick, and I must visit her at once. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Please don’t worry about me. I’ll be in touch.
Please take care of yourself,
Don’t call the police, Son, she thought. And don’t worry about me. Once things were more settled, she would write again. She thought he wouldn’t approve of her making her own arrangements in this way, and might even feel as if he’d let her down. But she felt it was the right decision; in the long run, her daughter-in-law would be happier, which meant that her son would have a chance of being happier.
That first week, Kitty was a constant presence, bringing visitors like Rocky, a construction worker. He fitted Granny Ng’s tent with mesh sheets that he assured her would protect her from cold, bugs, and damp. Rocky’s wife gave her acupressure massages for her aching back, while a young woman called Miss Kwan came by to donate a pair of gloves.
Uncle Chow explained how the village worked: the timetable for communal meals, the mail system, the procedures for submitting suggestions and complaints, and so on. Meanwhile, Kitty showed her where to go for drinking water and the washing facilities. Her favorite spots were the public bathrooms near the British Council, which tended to be the cleanest, but she warned her not to go there after dark. She showed her places around town where she could collect cans and bottles for recycling, the best underpasses from which to hawk goods without being bothered by police, and the best flyovers from which to beg, or, as they liked to call it, “ask for donations.”
At first, Granny Ng did not sleep well in her new environment. She didn’t mind the ground, which was not much harder than her previous bed, or the smallness of the space, though it would have been nice to have been able to stand up instead of crawling and stooping all the time. It was the noises, which seemed to go on all night till the morning: fellow tent dwellers chatting and cooking, voices and songs from their radios, teenagers’ yells and screams floating over from the other side of the park. Also, traffic seemed never to stop, the roar of engines and horns constant through the night; she wondered where these people were driving to under cover of darkness, and when they planned to catch up on the sleep they were losing. In the mornings she found she was stiffer than usual, and it took about half an hour of stretching and walking about before she felt normal again.
Granny Ng learned that people had come to the tent village for different reasons. Some had lost their homes during the last financial crisis. Many of the men in their late forties and fifties were construction workers who’d been laid off and couldn’t find steady work.
Miss Kwan was one of the newer residents. She’d lost her sales job at a securities firm three months ago and had been able to keep the news from her parents, who had emigrated to Canada several years ago. However, she had an old classmate in the city with whom she had a standing lunch date on the last Thursday of each month. For the past three months, Miss Kwan had put on her old work suit and walked over to the other side of the park, where her friend, who managed a cosmetics store, waited on a bench by the koi pond. She and her friend took turns treating each other. Miss Kwan had to save for three weeks in order to buy two rice box lunches from their favorite restaurant. She never finished the lunch box, claiming that she was full, or that she was trying to lose weight, but the truth was that she was keeping half of it for her evening meal. Afterward, she would return to her tent, slip her work suit into its plastic cover, and put it carefully away until the next time.
Granny Ng got the scoop on her neighbors from Kitty, who happily volunteered details of their life stories, but was vague when it came to Uncle Chow.
“He lost his job at a hotel—a good one, I think—but no one really knows the details. Now he makes a bit here and there by repairing electrical items—radios, lamps, clocks, that kind of thing. We’re not even sure how long he’s been here. Find the oldest, longest-standing resident and they’ll tell you Uncle Chow was already here and running things when they arrived.”
Granny Ng found it odd that Kitty knew so little about her friend. Then again, after several weeks of confidences, she had not yet told Granny Ng her own story of coming to live in the tent village. She had once mentioned a husband, but Granny Ng sensed her reluctance to elaborate. And while she tried to ignore the casual gossip from some of her fellow villagers—the husband was a drinker, a gambler, a wife-beater—she couldn’t help but invest in a version of Kitty’s past, one filled with adversity, suffering, and courage. This led to a newfound appreciation of her friend’s cheerful efficiency and eagerness to help, which at first, she had to admit, she had rather taken for granted, and at times had even found a little intrusive. Whatever the case, it seemed to Granny Ng that Kitty was content here, and this inspired in her the possibility that she could be too.
Despite her circumstances, Granny Ng was quite good at keeping herself clean and presentable. She bathed and did laundry in public washrooms, and even looked respectable enough to occasionally pass through shining hotel lobbies and use their bathrooms. She was careful to avoid going to the same hotels too often, and to bring only one or two garments to wash each time. Once, noticing the suspicious gaze of a bathroom attendant, she said she’d spilled something on herself in the restaurant and wanted to get the stain out. But maintaining a neat appearance wasn’t always helpful, as people found it difficult to believe that the old woman sitting on the pedestrian flyover really needed to beg. Some of them would say, “Come on, Granny, you’ve had your fun. Now stop slumming it and go home to your family. They’ll be worried about you.” She ignored the comments and held out her bowl, feeling it was less shameful to beg from strangers than from family.
Granny Ng had been living in the tent village for forty-two days when the city officials removed her, and about twenty other newcomers, from the park. When Uncle Chow asked them, “Why? What trouble were they causing?” the officials told him they’d been given fresh orders to prevent the spreading of the tent village. Granny Ng assumed there was some kind of understanding between the officials and the old-timer tent dwellers, since they had been left alone. As the officials stood over Granny Ng, watching Rocky help her pack up her tent and belongings, they seemed genuinely sorry, even a little embarrassed. Kitty and Uncle Chow gave her small packets and tins of food, and suggestions about where she could try setting up next. Kitty looked as if she might cry. “I’m so sorry you can’t stay, Granny Ng. I feel like I’ve let you down.” Granny Ng patted her on the shoulder and continued packing up her tent. She folded it slowly, and with much care. It may be just a sheet of cloth held up by poles, she thought, but even a millimeter of fabric can provide a small feeling of security.
Granny Ng took Kitty’s suggestion and tried another tent village, in a park about ten miles west. Kitty had taken her to the bus station and pointed to the name of the stop where she had to get off, making her repeat it three times. She saw her off with a cube of green bean cake wrapped in wax paper, and a flask of hot tea.
This new tent village was much smaller, with perhaps ten or twelve tents. They called themselves an association, and everything was shared. There was no chief, but the resident who seemed to speak the most was a gaunt, wiry man called Mr. To. He explained to Granny Ng that as long as you paid one hundred HKD a month, you could share their rice, cooking gas, and water. This association had managed to get some farming land donated to them by a homeless coalition.
“We started growing vegetables on it about a year ago,” said Mr. To. “The land had previously been used for growing pomegranates. It took us months to clear the roots by hand.”
“I can help,” said Granny Ng. “I know a little about gardening.”
“Ah, no, Granny,” said Mr. To. “It’s too much for you. The men have to cycle for almost an hour to get there. Besides, the first crops have just been harvested. We’ll sell the vegetables in the park in the next few days. I think we’ll make about one thousand HKD.”
Granny Ng nodded.
“You’re probably better off collecting recyclables or asking for donations,” said Mr. To.
Granny Ng said, “I understand,” but really she envied the men. How satisfying it must be to make something that could be sold to appreciative customers. If she couldn’t help the association with farming, she could perhaps do other things. She had always been good with her hands, and as a young girl had assisted her father in his studio. He had been a carpenter by trade, but he had also made beautiful wood carvings that he sold to a small number of clients. She had loved to watch him work. During her final year of primary school, she decided to carve a set of six animals, each the size of a child’s fist. When after a week it became clear that they would barely resemble their real-life counterparts, she decided to turn them into mythical creatures of her own devising. The pig, for example, would have the stripes of a tiger. The bird, whose legs were too thick, would have horse legs. She worked on them every day after school for almost two months. The most difficult one to get right was a creature with the body of a leopard and the head of an elephant; this one alone took two weeks. She finally presented the set to her father on his birthday; his chuckling delight she remembered more clearly than any words of praise he may have uttered. Several days later, when he saw her sorting through blocks of wood for another project, he said, “Daughter, your high school entrance exams are just two months away. I think you should spend your time studying.” Granny Ng couldn’t recall anything she had made since then. Still, throughout her life she occasionally wondered if, had she not become a wife and mother, or if she’d been born in a different time, she might have followed in her father’s footsteps.
She went around the park collecting branches and nubs of wood. Then she borrowed a selection of tools from the communal kitchen and workshop—a saw, a cutting knife, and several chisels—and set to work. She worked with great concentration, determined that from these coarse pieces of wood a delicately contoured animal would be conjured. She spent almost an entire day on the project, and by dusk, when she had to return the tools, she was disappointed that she’d managed to achieve only a crudely shaped figure. Her fellow villagers showed little surprise. A few said, “Good effort, Granny,” before retiring to their tents. Disheartened, Granny Ng joined some of the others the next day in collecting cans and bottles for recycling.
Granny Ng managed to stay in the village for little over a month before city officials came and cleared out the newcomers. She went to another park, where she stayed for twenty-six days before being moved again. She began worrying about the cooler weather that was coming. Upon leaving the last tent village, she was given the name of another park up in the New Territories. A few minutes into the bus ride, Granny Ng fell into a light sleep. When she awoke, she was alarmed to find herself traveling along an open highway with fields and hills on either side, sparsely dotted with low-rise houses. At the next stop, she went up to the driver and showed him the piece of paper with the name of the park written on it.
“Don’t worry, Granny,” said the driver. “You’ve still got about six more stops.”
“When did we leave Hong Kong Island?”
He shrugged. “About twenty miles back.”
Granny Ng returned to her seat. She gazed out of the window at the quiet, unfamiliar landscape: the expanse of sky and the dense green peaks that loomed in the distance. She had not traveled so far from home in years, and in those extra twenty miles she felt as if she were suddenly in another country. Panicked, she pressed the bell and hurried off the bus at the next stop, pausing only to thank the driver. She set down her duffel bag on the side of the highway and watched the bus disappear into the pinkish-blue horizon.
She had to get to the other side. Something told her that whatever she needed was situated there. But even though it seemed relatively quiet at this time, she was afraid to step onto the tarmac in case a vehicle appeared out of nowhere and knocked her flat.
A sudden breeze, and Granny Ng hugged herself against the chill. She picked up her duffel bag and started walking along the highway, squinting at the sunset. After a quarter of an hour, she came to an underpass marked by a sign: tin hau garden. An arrow pointed to the other side of the highway. It was several degrees cooler in the underpass, which was dim and smelled of damp leaves and urine. She hurried past a peeling mural of children flying kites on a hill, and up a sloping path that brought her onto the other side of the road. Another sign for Tin Hau Garden pointed to a narrow, overgrown path, which eventually opened onto a small patch of green. A stone bird fountain stood in the middle of it, full of mashed leaves and dirty water. Next to it was an iron bench with a memorial plaque on the back. Granny Ng avoided reading it. It made her uncomfortable, this monument after death. She wondered about the person it was dedicated to, how they would feel knowing there was a big, uncomfortable bench built in their name. She decided it was useless and in the way—too hard to sit on, let alone sleep on. Not that I would ever sleep on a bench, she thought.
Granny Ng decided to set up her sleeping arrangements while there was still some light. A thick line of bushes near the highway seemed to be a good choice—enough cover from passing cars and people, and an escape route of sorts in case she needed it (who could tell if unruly teenagers had claimed this spot for their drinking and goodness knows what else?). Pulling back some branches and hunching a little, she edged herself in. She beat back some more branches to make enough room to lay down a narrow piece of tarp and unfurl her ground mat and sleeping bag. She hooked the loops of the tent cover onto overhanging branches. There was just enough room to sit up straight and to lie down. Now that she had made her nest, she felt reluctant to leave it, reassured by the cover it gave her. She pulled a flashlight from her duffel bag and laid it down beside her hip. She also pulled out a clock radio and a plastic bag containing a roll of toilet paper and set them down beside the flashlight. Then she arranged a picnic of her evening meal: a tangerine, some slices of SPAM, and a flask of green tea.
Granny Ng’s greatest fear had once been that the older she got, the more likely it was that she would be forgotten. Her second greatest fear was of being a burden, though that was sometimes the only guarantee of being remembered. But now, munching on the tangerine, she decided it would be ideal to depart from this life with no trace. How nice, she thought, to lie down on a patch of earth and simply be absorbed in rapid degrees throughout the night, and by morning you’d be gone. How efficient. Passersby would not have to deal with the inconvenience of a body, and would only delight in finding use for the objects inside the tent: the sleeping bag, the clock radio, the tube of toothpaste, the three sweaters and two pairs of comfortable shoes, the Swiss Army knife, the roll of toilet paper, the flashlight, the tin bowl, the pair of silver chopsticks, and the three tins of SPAM.
Granny Ng spent the following morning contemplating the house on the other side of the highway. It was low and cream-colored, with a dark-glass door. It intrigued her that a family would want to live in the middle of a field with no other houses in sight, and a restless, noisy highway right in front. She decided to watch the house and wait for a glimpse of this family. She imagined a young, successful couple ushering their children, a boy and a girl, out of the house each morning and onto a school bus. Perhaps they had a dog. Her daughter-in-law had kept poor Maru cooped up in a cage in the kitchen, and Granny Ng, unable to bear its mournful whining, had taken it upon herself to walk it around the park every morning. But this family, she thought: they have so much space, they could keep a dog of any size and it would be happy.
Granny Ng watched the house all morning, but no one appeared. She had to get up every half hour or so and walk about to warm herself up and stretch her legs. She had been hungry since waking up, but made herself wait until noon before she ate. She had two and a half tins of SPAM left; with rice, they could last her a few more days, but on their own, she didn’t know. She took small bites, washing down the saltiness with small sips from her flask of tea, which had now grown tepid and slimy. The food put a weight in her stomach but made her feel colder than before.
She watched the house for the rest of the afternoon, and still no one appeared. Eventually, she climbed into her sleeping bag and tried to nap for a while. A horn from a passing truck woke her. She drew back the tent covering and saw the sky was darkening, streaked with smoky grays and blues. A little while later, at around seven o’clock, she saw a young, small-faced man approach the front door. A salesman? But no; he rummaged in his trouser pocket, fished out a key, and let himself in.
Over the next three days, Granny Ng watched the house and the young man, who emerged each morning in a tie and a short-sleeved shirt, munching on an apple. On the fourth day, she made her move.
The gate to the side of the house unlatched lightly, and she stepped into a flat garden with a pear tree at the edge. She pulled up a patio chair under an open window, stood on the chair, and climbed in, slowly lowering herself backward into a sink. As she brought her left leg toward the floor, she was distracted by her plastic flip-flop sliding off her foot; turning to look at it, she lost her balance, caught the edge of the sink for balance, and banged her elbow, cursing.
She leaned back against the sink and took a moment to rub her elbow, then her lower back and thighs. She felt as if she had stones lodged in her joints. As the blood started returning to her limbs, she realized that, for the first time in weeks, she didn’t feel cold.
The room smelled of warm dust and lemons. Plastic detergent bottles lined a single shelf above a chrome washer-dryer. She eyed her distorted reflection in the door: her face stretched like a balloon, her short, greasy hair a smear of black ink. She gathered up her flip-flops and glanced at the wall clock: 8:05 a.m.
Granny Ng stepped out into a long corridor, her toes nudging the edge of the tatami runner that stretched to the end. In the quiet, her breathing sounded amplified and coarse. She listened for the scrape of a chair, a cough. All she heard was a low hum of electricity. Still, she stood paralyzed with doubt. Maybe she wasn’t so original after all. Maybe someone else had got there first.
She considered the closed doors along the corridor, and opened the first one on her right. Bathroom. Empty. The next door revealed a thermostat. The opposite door opened onto an office. Next to that was a closet full of towels and bedding. The last door opened onto the master bedroom. No one there. She sighed with relief, then chuckled at her faintheartedness. The end of the corridor revealed an open kitchen on the left and a living room on the right. The kitchen was spacious, with a preparation counter in the middle and shiny orange pots and pans hanging from a metal rafter above it. In the living room there was a large, thin television mounted on the wall and a brown L-shaped sofa facing it. The sparseness of her surroundings stirred in her feelings of awe and unease. The objects around her seemed to exist within an impersonal kind of order, as if they had been arranged according to an instruction manual. The only suggestion that someone might actually reside here was the small collection of framed photographs on the living room side table. Granny Ng picked up a photograph of the young man. In the photograph he was wearing a graduation cap and gown. He had a small, pebble-smooth face, and eyes that looked ready to flinch.
“Ah, who’s been bullying you, son?” she said softly. He looked like a nice boy, the kind who had good manners. A slight, uncertain smile rested on his pillowy lips. He reminded Granny Ng of the classical poet from the painting—what was its name? In it, the poet sits on a rock with cranes perched on branches around him. He is reciting a poem, which is inscribed in the upper-right corner of the painting. She had seen it throughout her life: as a young girl, she’d seen it in one of her father’s art books in his studio; as a student, she’d seen it at the University Museum in Pok Fu Lam; and throughout the rest of her life she’d encountered the image on T-shirts, mugs, and posters in souvenir shops. But, as with many things now, she couldn’t recall its name.
In another photograph, the young man was at a lake, wearing a baggy T-shirt with the letters NYU on it, standing next to an older man with the same pillowy mouth. With one hand, the older man held up a plump, chrome-colored fish the size of a small boy, and with the other hand he squeezed the young man’s shoulder. They were smiling. No, the older man was smiling; the young man seemed to be squinting into the sun, or about to cry.
Granny Ng liked the look of the sofa, and thought it couldn’t hurt to sit for just a moment. She sank into the cushions, and was startled by how soft and comfortable they were. She rubbed her cheek against the cool suede and let out a deep “Aaahhh…”
Then she became aware of a darkly sour odor. She pulled some strands of hair across her face and gingerly sniffed them, then her shirtsleeve. Although she’d tried to keep herself as clean as possible, the salty, earthy smells of the park and her lack of access to a bathroom these last few days had hindered this effort. She suddenly felt filthy, slick with dirt and sweat, and was seized with an urge to rid herself of it. She went into the bathroom, closed the toilet lid, removed her clothes, and folded them in a neat pile on top.
The shower was glorious. She’d forgotten how good it felt to stand under hot, steaming water. It was so soothing that she almost dozed off, and it was only the jabbing hunger in her stomach that jolted her and made her turn off the water. Squeezing a towel around herself, she frowned at the pile of clothes on the toilet seat. She gathered them in her arms and padded across the corridor into the office. This room had a futon sofa, a framed photograph of Mount Fuji, a desk with a computer on it, and a built-in closet with sliding wooden doors. Inside the closet she found some suits and coats hanging in filmy covers. Plastic boxes were stacked in threes, containing T-shirts, sweaters, and jogging pants. The jogging pants she picked out were too long—she had to fold up the ends three times—but the T-shirt fit nicely.
In the kitchen, she found garbage bags under the sink. She pulled one out and started filling it up. First she put in some clothes from the closet: two pairs of thick socks, a sweater, and two T-shirts. Then she went back to the kitchen and collected several tins of SPAM, dace in black beans, preserved vegetables, a few packets of ramen noodles, and a liter bottle of mineral water. She wrapped three eggs in a dishcloth. She thought about taking some soap and detergent to wash her clothes, then realized she could just come back and use the washer-dryer.
Okay, she told herself. You’ve got your supplies. Time to go. But still there was the jabbing in her stomach. She decided it couldn’t hurt to make herself something to eat. I’ve got all day, after all, she reasoned. The prospect of hot food was too tempting to pass up. And while she was here, she might as well throw those dirty clothes into the washer.
Granny Ng cooked some ramen noodles in a saucepan, cracked an egg into it, and ate from a large bowl on the sofa in front of the TV. She was relishing the warmth of the soup too much to pay attention to the bright, flickering images on the screen. She fell asleep with the bowl in her lap and woke later in darkness with a shiver, then was seized by a mild panic, momentarily forgetting where she was and then suddenly feeling cold and heavy with tiredness. In the dark kitchen, the microwave clock glowed at her: 6:45 p.m. The young man came home at 7 p.m.
Granny Ng grabbed the saucepan and started scrubbing at the noodles that had stuck to the bottom. Then she rinsed off the bowl and the chopsticks, dried them, and put them back in their places. She wiped down the counters with a sponge and wiped them again with a paper towel to avoid leaving water marks.
It was 6:55 p.m. The sky was dark. The branches of the pear tree at the edge of the garden had retreated into shadow. Granny Ng headed to the back of the house, toward the laundry room, took the damp clothes out of the washer, and with some effort, managed to pull herself onto the sink counter. Then she remembered the garbage bag full of supplies.
“Stupid!” she whispered. She lowered herself back down and hurried into the bedroom. No bag. She went down the hall and searched the office, the kitchen, before finally spotting it at the foot of the sofa.
“Friday is good for me too.”
Granny Ng froze at the sound of the young man’s voice on the other side of the front door. Her hand hovered over the neck of the garbage bag and she carefully closed her fingers around it.
“Whatever you prefer. Excuse me; I’m just letting myself in.”
Granny Ng grabbed the garbage bag, hurried back down the hall into the office, opened the closet door, crouched on the floor behind the plastic boxes, and slid the door shut, breathing in the sharp, acrid smell of mothballs in the dark.
With her cheek against the closet wall, Granny Ng heard the slam of the front door and the young man’s wavering voice. “Sounds good. Great, great. Yes, I’ll call you on Wednesday. Me too: very glad.”
In the quiet that followed, she imagined the young man stopping on the doormat to slip off his tight office shoes and put them away. She couldn’t remember if there was a shoe rack, or if she’d seen pairs of shoes lined up on the floor just inside the door. She thought of her son’s cotton-socked toes wedged between the forks of his plastic slippers; a grown man of almost forty, and still his feet looked so childish.
She heard the microwave door open and shut, and a series of beeping sounds. He’s heating up some takeout, she thought. He probably eats takeout every night. No wonder the kitchen looks so undisturbed. The radio came on, a show where people talked about jazz musicians. Then she heard slow, heavy footsteps coming down the corridor toward her. She startled at the sound of a door opening, then realized it was the bathroom door across the hall. A blast of water, quickly muted. More footsteps down the hall—his steps were very heavy… perhaps he was flat-footed?—then drawers sliding open and banging lightly against the coasters. The young man was humming something without an obvious melody. His voice was pleasantly soft and light. A high-pitched beep from the microwave echoed down the hall. A blast of water, then muted again. The young man had stepped into the steam of the bathroom, ignoring the food that was waiting for him.
Several hours passed before Granny Ng finally heard the door shut to the main bedroom. Over the course of the evening, she had listened to the young man’s movements. He’d spent about twenty minutes munching on his dinner in front of his computer, before going into the living room and watching a movie. Then he’d returned to the office and started blowing into a musical instrument; it sounded like a small elephant braying. Whatever it was, she thought, it must have water in it, the way it wheezed and whistled.
In the closet, she’d found a stack of towels on the shelves and spread several of these on the floor behind the plastic storage boxes. Using the garbage bag she’d filled with supplies as a pillow, she had lain down for a few hours. After the first hour or so, she’d become quite stiff and cold from the floor, but apart from that it hadn’t been so bad. Upon hearing the bedroom door close, Granny Ng decided it was finally safe to come out. She stepped out of the closet and stretched her arms and legs.
She decided she would tidy up and sneak out of there while the young man slept. She peered out of the window and saw that the highway was slick with wet. Thinking of her flimsy tent, she hoped it had been a light, brief rain. Her eyes had to strain to make out her spot in the bushes through the window in the dark.
Then it started to pour. Granny Ng sighed. There was nothing for it. She climbed back into the closet, despairing over the state her tent would be in by the morning.
That night, Granny Ng dreamed of her son. Perhaps it was the smell of the mothballs, so pungently antiseptic and reminiscent of the wardrobe in the apartment they’d shared. He appeared to her as a child, in what seemed to be less of a dream than a memory. She had just picked him up from his first day at school. While children had run past him into their mothers’ embrace, he had stood hopelessly at the gate, his pale little legs knocking against each other uncertainly.
“I’m taking you for an ice cream, for being such a brave boy,” she said. His hand was so small and soft in hers, it seemed that if she squeezed any harder she would crush it like a marshmallow. His fragility made her anxious, and often brought her to the brink of tears. It took all the restraint she could manage to refrain from coddling him.
In the café, she waited a few minutes for him to enjoy his lemon ice cream before asking, “So, was your first day really as bad as you thought it would be?”
Hesitation flickered across his face; he continued working on his ice cream with greater resolve.
“Is your teacher strict? Or kind?” Her own ice cream was melting in its bowl. “What about your classmates? Did you end up in the same class as your friend Ah Bo?” She regretted how her questions were spoiling his enjoyment of his treat, but she couldn’t help probing, urged on by the belief that it was better for him to share these things with her.
He scraped the last of the ice cream onto his spoon and gazed upon it mournfully, as if he were bidding farewell to a dear friend. Then he turned to her with an anguished look and said, “Why must I go to school?”
She was not prepared for this question. “Why, because… because it’s the law.” She wished she had come up with a more persuasive answer, but it was the first thing that had come to mind. “Ah, and also, of course, because you must learn things, and become a smart boy, and grow up to be a useful young man. Do you want all the other boys to be better than you?”
She smiled hopefully at her son, appealing to his understanding, perhaps his pride, but he was staring at his empty bowl and dragging his spoon back and forth across it. He started tapping it against the bottom of the bowl, as if it were a spade hitting a treasure chest in the ground. The sound became loud enough that the other customers in the café started looking over at them.
“Son,” she pleaded softly.
Her son continued hitting the spoon against the bowl. Tears welled in his eyes, and his cheeks were flushed with fearful determination. How had she produced such a sensitive, sullen child? she wondered. As a baby he had seemed so cheerful and full of good nature. She left some money on the table and surprised her son by roughly scooping him up by the armpits and carrying him out of the café, beyond the discreet stares of the other customers, only to return moments later to hand over the ice cream spoon to the waitress.
The next morning, Granny Ng waited for the slam of the front door, then hurried out of the closet and across the hall, sat on the toilet, and gave a long sigh of relief as she felt the burden she’d been carrying all night leave her body. She stretched her limbs, stiff and aching from sleeping on the cold floor. Then she climbed through the laundry room window with her garbage bag of supplies and crossed the highway toward the bushes. The air was fresh and cool after the night’s rain, and the tarmac gleamed in the faint sunshine.
The bushes had been ripped open. The contents of her nest were strewn across the ground. The tent covering hung limp from a broken branch, and underneath lay the sleeping bag, bloated with damp like a giant slug. Granny Ng let herself cry, quietly and briefly. Then she noticed that just a few objects lay on the ground—her clothes, the chopsticks, the tin bowl, and the soaked roll of toilet paper. Her initial distress was replaced by a sense of consolation as she realized it had not been a pointless vandalism; whoever had come to ransack the nest in the night had found things they’d needed. She wondered if this was a skewed manifestation of her wish: to disappear in the night, leaving nothing but items of use. No one can accuse me now of taking up space, she thought, gathering up the discarded items. Not even the bushes or the worms in the ground. The feeling didn’t last long, though. She knew she was fooling herself; the fact remained that her feet were still on this patch of grass and she had not really disappeared. Then, looking over at the young man’s house, it occurred to her that although she could not pull off this impossible feat of disappearance, she might be able to come close to it.
She crossed back over the highway, unlatched the garden gate, pushed her garbage bag of supplies through the back window, and climbed in after it. She threw her rain-soaked clothes, sleeping bag, ground mat, and tent cover into the washing machine and went across the hall into the office. She opened the closet doors. The space looked smaller than it had earlier that morning, or the objects in it larger: big plastic storage boxes stacked three by three in the front, and a row of jackets, trousers, and coats in dry-cleaning bags hanging above them. She guessed that the young man was the kind of person who bought impulsively and accumulated too many of those sweatshirts with logos on the breast, or suits that were too mature for him. He probably bought these things out of boredom, or because a coworker or a girlfriend had encouraged him to.
At the back of the closet, behind the boxes and under the hanging clothes, she contemplated the space where she had slept the night before: roughly two feet wide and five feet long, about three and a half feet between the clothes and the floor. The young man had so much space, he didn’t have enough to fill it.
Granny Ng couldn’t help shaking her head at how much he probably took for granted. She had been raised with the belief that wastefulness was a dire offense; if you had space, you found useful things to occupy it. Her son and daughter-in-law, despite their flaws, knew the value of this, though perhaps too much—they had, after all, in the end decided that their space was of more use to them than she was. Granny Ng grimaced at this brief moment of self-pity and turned her attention to her next course of action.
She would make use of that small rectangle of space at the back of the closet, at least until the weather got warm and dry again. Then, she thought, perhaps she would try her luck in another tent village. But the idea of moving again immediately nauseated her.
No need to think about it now, she told herself. Just rest up here for a while and you’ll feel more prepared to go out there again. Pushing the hanging clothes to one side, she looked upon her new home with a hopeful imagination. Once her ground mat and sleeping bag had dried, she would lay them down there in the corner, with extra towels for bedding, and make it quite cozy and comfortable. It would be like a smaller version of her first tent, with more insulation than any tent dweller could wish for. Her bag of clothes would sit at her feet, or she could use it as a pillow. Her flashlight had been taken, but what was this? A light cord hung from the ceiling on the left side of the closet. She pulled on it with a click, and the space was filled with a watery yellow glow. As long as the young man was not in the room, she could use this, but otherwise a flashlight would be much better. She would get a toilet roll from the bathroom and lay it next to her head in case she needed to blow her nose in the night. She could deposit her used bits of toilet paper in a plastic bag looped around the handle of one of the boxes. Yes, it would all come together nicely.
To pass the time as she waited for the washing cycle to finish, Granny Ng surveyed the office. She noticed that the computer keyboard had oily keys, and guessed that he spent a lot of time in front of that machine. A printer sat next to it with paper sticking out of its tray; it looked like it was sticking its tongue out at her. A black rectangular case leaned against the corner of the room. She opened it and saw a slim black instrument that had been dismantled and stored in several parts. So it’s a clarinet, she thought, not a small elephant, ha-ha.
She sat in the big, puffy office chair on wheels and scooted around the room for a bit until she started feeling dizzy and had to lie down on the white futon sofa. Another waste, she thought. How well I could use that sofa! She wondered about the picture of Mount Fuji on the wall—if it was somewhere the young man had been. She didn’t recall seeing any photos of him in cold-weather clothes. Perhaps it was somewhere he wanted to visit one day, or perhaps he just thought it was pretty. She felt she could understand, as she used to cover her bedroom door with scenic pictures torn from out-of-date calendars: glassy lakes mirroring lush forests, clusters of banyan trees silhouetted by a crimson dusk, or cherry blossoms against a blue sky.
As she surveyed the rest of the house, she tried to imagine how a man of so few years could be successful enough to maintain as large and as comfortable a home as this. Perhaps he was one of those people who had a gift for computers, business, something like that, or perhaps he’d inherited some money.
Upon further investigation, she soon saw through the minimal, ordered appearance of the house. The blinds were full of dust. The metallic sheen of the kitchen cupboards opened to shelves haphazardly stacked with packets of food, crockery, and water bottles. She disapproved of the young man’s choice of laundry detergent—too expensive, no brightening agent—and was dismayed to find there was no fabric softener on the shelves. She got on her hands and knees and straightened the thick tatami mat that ran askew along the length of the corridor. In the young man’s bedroom, the dresser drawers contained a jumble of socks, underpants, and vests. His wardrobe was no better—clothes squashed together, ties tangled up—and a quick glance under his bed was enough to tell her it was a site of neglect. She was sure she could straighten the place out in a day or two, but she knew she couldn’t do it without drawing attention to her efforts. So that day she contented herself with taking a damp cloth to the blinds and throwing out some moldy food from the refrigerator. Over the next few days, then weeks, she learned to take a deep breath before opening a drawer or a door, and to face the disorder within by moving just a few things here, a few things there.
How have you been? I hope you and Daughter-in-law are both in good health. I am sorry if you’ve been worried about my well-being. I have found a nice place out of town, and I think I will stay here awhile. My accommodations are clean and warm, and there is a washer-dryer that makes things very convenient. It is nice here.
The kitchen is well equipped, although it was terribly disorganized when I first arrived. Pots were with plates, cups and bowls were with packets of food. It really was chaos. I straighten things out a bit here and there, because it is the least I can do for my host. He is a young man in his thirties. He has a full-time job, and is often tired when he gets home in the evening. A woman comes on Mondays and Thursdays to clean and run errands, but, frankly, she is useless. She gets paid for three hours each time, but she spends only one hour working and the rest of the time she spends on the phone or watching TV. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that I do three times as much cleaning as she does. But as I have said, it is the least I can do for my host.
Do you want to hear something funny? The other day I heard the so-called cleaner talking on the phone. She is convinced that the young man has found himself a girlfriend, and that the girlfriend has taken it upon herself to tidy up the place! Meanwhile, the young man noticed how much better things have been organized lately, and he gave the cleaner a small raise and thanked her for all her hard work. What a shock that must have been for her! You can imagine how popular this imaginary girlfriend was with her.
Although I make light of it, I really would like to see him with a nice young woman. Lately there has been someone he talks to a lot on the phone, but she doesn’t sound like she’s right for him. He always sounds as if he’s apologizing or trying to calm her down. She came here one evening after they’d been out for dinner. I could hear her voice all the way from the living room. She was complaining about a waitress she thought had been rude to her at the restaurant. “For such a high-class place, they hire really low-class staff ” were her words. I thought she must be very beautiful for him to put up with such an ugly temperament. I was right. A week or so later, he put a framed picture of her in the office, next to his computer. She looks like a movie star: long hair, very pretty.
When the lazy cleaner isn’t around, and the young man is at work or out on the weekends with his young woman, I have the whole place to myself. This is my favorite time. I usually try and find something to keep myself busy. Today I took down the curtains and washed and ironed them. Yesterday I collected the young man’s socks and darned the ones that looked like they were starting to get holes in them. I don’t mind it at all.
I relax by practicing tai chi in the garden. It’s also been nice to catch up on some TV shows. Remember I used to follow that soap opera set in a countryside clinic? I stopped watching it for a few months, and now everything’s different—new actors are playing old characters, people are married or divorced or dead. I can barely keep up; everything’s changed so quickly. Fortunately, real life moves a little more slowly.
I wish you could see what a nice place this is.
Please take care of yourself,
Granny Ng could not understand why the grass in the garden seemed not to have grown during the time she’d been there. She pressed her palms lightly against the blades; they felt real enough. The sparseness of the garden made it seem like something no one wanted to care for or devote any time or thought to, and this made her feel sad for it. She started imagining a row of orchids here, a fishpond there, a water feature there, and sometimes drew variations of these ideas on sheets of printer paper. It was a strangely liberating feeling; she hadn’t drawn for years, and was amazed to find that her hands were still somewhat faithful to her imagination, and that she was capable still of rendering the images in her mind. Sometimes, when she tired of drawing gardens, she drew animals. Later, she attempted reproductions of famous paintings, but found that her memory often failed her in the details. She taped all of these drawings, finished or not, to the back and side walls of the closet, where they hung over her sleeping head like dreams in waiting.
The weather is turning cooler. How have you been? The more I think about it, the more I find similarities between you and this young man. You are both tidy but not very clean. You both dislike bananas and enjoy music. He plays the clarinet. He plays it once in the morning after his shower, and once in the evening before bed. He never plays an entire tune. He usually plays scales, or practices the same part of a song over and over again, maybe fifteen or twenty times. It gives me a bit of a headache, to tell you the truth. You are more gifted musically. You played the flute very well. It’s a shame you gave it up after high school.
But there are also differences. You are up and out of the apartment in less than forty-five minutes. He takes an hour and a half. At 6:30 a.m., the radio comes on in his bedroom and in the kitchen, a jazz station that plays very energetic music. He always walks to the bathroom singing or humming whatever song is playing that morning. If he’s in a good mood, he’ll sing loudly in the shower. That cheers me up. When I use the bathroom after him, it smells of cucumber and mint, and it is full of condensation. I have to turn on the extractor fan, open the window, and hang up the bath mat to dry.
Straight after his shower, he goes into the office, and he plays that clarinet for about ten or fifteen minutes. I can hardly bear it, not so much because of the noise but because I think surely he’s going to catch a cold doing that. Of course, it’s not my place to tell him what to do, but I don’t understand why he can’t wait till he’s put some clothes on. Maybe once he’s dressed for work, he’s no longer in the mood to play.
Like you, he enjoys his coffee. The kitchen always smells of it after he leaves. He has a cup in the kitchen while he watches the breakfast news on TV, and then he pours the rest into a flask, which he takes to work. As he gathers up his things, he starts on an apple, and I can hear him crunching all the way from the end of the hall. I think a young man should have more than coffee and an apple in the mornings, but who knows—maybe he has a big, hearty lunch at work.
I hope you and Daughter-in-law are well. Remember not to work too hard, and be sure to eat lots of warming food as the weather gets cooler—lots of ginger and garlic, make some pork soup. Please give Maru my love.
Take care of yourself,
Granny Ng confirmed that the young man often brought home takeout dinners or ate instant ramen in the evening. The morning apple seemed to be the only healthy thing he ate. She wanted to cook for him, encourage him to eat more, but the only feasible way of doing this was to use the cleaner as a cover. Every Monday and Thursday at eleven o’clock, the cleaner let herself in. Thursdays there was a white envelope of cash with “Mrs. Lee” written on the front, stuck to the door of the fridge. By two o’clock, the cleaner had left and the envelope was gone from the fridge door, and in its place was an instructive note: “Mr. Mok, Please remember to leave money for milk, eggs, and rice” or “Mr. Mok, Usual detergent out of stock, different brand costs extra 15 HKD. Please add amount to envelope.”
After practicing the cleaner’s handwriting, Granny left a note on the fridge door: “Mr. Mok, Curried vegetables and rice in fridge. Too much for family, please help eat. Cover dish with glass lid. Microwave 3 minutes.” The next morning, Granny Ng was pleased to find a dirty plate in the dishwasher and no leftovers in the trash. After the second dish—“Fried snapper with scrambled egg and tomato. Splash a little water on egg and tomato. Microwave 1 minute”—she was surprised to find a Post-it note on the fridge door: “Dear Mrs. Lee, I enjoyed the food. Thank you, you are too kind.”
Granny Ng felt a flush of happiness, then panic. She tore the note from the fridge door, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash. Then, fearing he might find it in there and take offense, she fished it out, smoothed it open, and stuck it on the back wall of her closet next to her drawings. The young man made a habit of leaving a thank-you Post-it on the fridge each time a dish had been left for him, even when Granny Ng knew he hadn’t enjoyed the food so much (the next morning she might find half of it in the trash, along with an empty ramen noodle packet). Granny Ng dutifully collected these thank-you notes and found a place for each one on the closet wall among her drawings. Gradually, they spread like vine leaves, and occasionally one would peel off in the night and she’d wake to find it resting on her forehead or cheek.
How have you been? I’m glad that everything has worked out for both of us. Things are going well here, and with the extra room you now have, you and Daughter-in-law can start thinking about having a baby. It’s a shame your father isn’t here to see you move into this phase of life.
Granny Ng put down the pen. She struggled to conjure her late husband’s face in her mind. Absentmindedly, she stroked the thin silver band on her finger. It had lost its shine over the years and was now a foggy gray, bearing a closer resemblance to tin than to silver. She had never thought of selling it, not even at her most desperate; it had not occurred to her, just as it wouldn’t have occurred to her to cut off a finger or an ear and think it would be worth anything to anybody.
She couldn’t see her husband’s face, but she could feel the flat, smooth plane of the back of his head against her palm. She had held it every day toward the end, helping him keep his head up as she spooned warm broth into his mouth. As a child, he had been affectionately nicknamed Flatheaded Boy by everyone in the village. She had never given much thought to this feature of his, and was surprised to think of it now. Over the years, her memories of him had appeared in increasingly broad strokes: his narrow, thoughtful face; his stubbornness; his pale, weakening body that smelled of old bread; her quiet despair at being left alone just a year after her son was born. She stroked the creases of her palm, and for a moment wondered if she had remembered correctly—that the flat back of the head was indeed her husband’s, and not her infant son’s.
Granny Ng heard the young man pacing about the room. She curled up tighter. She was waiting for him to curse, or slam a door, or break a glass. Although she knew it wasn’t like him to lose his temper, still, she waited for the sound of something. But there was only the clink and groan of the ironing board being folded up, the static hiss of a machine coming to life. Click. Click.
Another evening alone at his computer. Occasionally the quiet was interrupted by a voice or an advertising jingle—an announcement that he’d won a million dollars, an invitation to join a fun party by dialing this number. Then sound effects—a rippling of cards, plastic chips clinking against one another, and the dealer’s catchphrase, “The house always wins—but maybe not tonight!”
Granny Ng recognized the game. Her son had played online poker until his wife found out and forced him to transfer all of his money to their joint account. The sound effects continued for some time, and from the increasingly frequent exclamations from the dealer—“You’re really cleaning up!”; “You’ve got the moves!”—Granny Ng surmised that he was on a winning streak. She felt happy for him, that he had some consolation for the disappointments of this evening. Earlier, while he was in the shower, she’d cracked open the closet door and seen that he’d carefully placed on the futon a shirt with the price tag still attached, a pair of pants, and a tube of hair gel. Granny Ng had heard him on the phone with the young woman a few days before, agreeing that he needed to give his hair “some personality.” Still, it appeared that for some reason the young woman had decided she didn’t want to spend the evening with him. Granny Ng had listened as he tried to sound understanding, saying that no, he hadn’t gone to a lot of trouble for the evening. She’d listened as he called to cancel the restaurant reservation, as he washed the gel out of his hair in the bathroom sink, and as he shoved the plate of food Granny Ng had made for him into the microwave. But now he was winning money online, and amid the clamor of sound effects, she could hear him saying, “Yes! Yes!”
She was happy for him, although her happiness would have been greater were she not in such desperate need of the toilet. Her bladder, she felt, was the only thing about her age that betrayed her in this situation, the only inconvenience. In an effort to reduce the frequency of her urination, she had taken to drinking only two glasses of water a day. It seemed to have some effect during the daytime—she needed to use the toilet only twice—but after 7 p.m., when the young man returned and she had stowed herself away in the closet, the urge to urinate visited her two to three times before morning. This discovery she’d made the hard way: on one of her first nights there, she had brought with her into the closet an empty half-liter water bottle and a funnel, which served their purpose until she woke in the middle of night with both a bladder and a bottle that needed to be emptied. She’d had to open the closet door, tiptoe to the window, and trickle the contents of the bottle onto the lawn before she could use it again. After that, she brought a second half-liter bottle into the closet with her. In the mornings, after the young man left for work, Granny Ng went to the bathroom and disinfected the bottles and the funnel, filling them with diluted detergent and setting them in the bathtub for thirty minutes before rinsing them out.
Granny Ng clutched the empty bottle in the dark, hoping she could wait it out. Usually when the young man was at his computer in the evenings, she would time her toilet breaks with his; so far, this solution had worked without complications. But this evening, the young man was not doing his part.
The telephone started ringing from down the hall. The young man continued playing his game. Granny Ng silently pleaded with him, Please, go to the phone. It might be that young woman! Maybe she’s come to her senses and wants to tell you she’s sorry! Please, answer the phone, if only to give her a piece of your mind!
The dealer congratulated him again—“Expertly played!” A few more telephone rings, then silence. Granny Ng sank into despair, and her sympathetic feelings for the young man turned into sharp annoyance. Then she heard his chair roll across the floor, and the young man’s footsteps as he left the room. Granny Ng seized the moment and quickly unscrewed the bottle cap.
Granny Ng had been holding on for so long that when the time came to urinate, she at first missed the top of the funnel and got the floor of the closet—You should know better! How many times have you done this now!—and had to mop up the wet patch with a towel from the shelf. Footsteps again; the chair squeaked under his weight. For the next few minutes Granny Ng heard little except the hum of the computer, the swish of cars passing on the freeway, and some occasional clicks. He’s probably had enough of poker, she thought. She was glad he’d quit while he was ahead. Maybe he was reading the news now. She leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes. She thought about the scrapbook where she used to keep her favorite news articles. These were often unusual or uplifting stories, such as the Japanese family vacationing in Kyoto who lost their beloved dog in an amusement park, returned heartbroken to Osaka, and a week later were amazed to find the dog sitting on their doorstep, having miraculously found its way home. In another article, a sixty-three-year-old British man who’d been blind his entire life claimed to have regained his sight after traveling to Italy and catching his first whiff of pizza.
Granny Ng had kept a special section in her scrapbook devoted to tales of reunited families. Her favorite stories concerned twins who’d been separated at a young age and, after twenty, thirty, forty years, had reunited under fantastically coincidental circumstances. She thought of the woman from Tokyo who had been honeymooning in Niagara Falls with her French husband. Lunching at their hotel restaurant overlooking the falls, the woman spilled wine on her blouse and went up to their room to change. Her husband stayed at their table, and after a few minutes finished his glass of wine and decided to visit the seafood buffet. Seeing his wife examine the oyster-shaped ice sculpture, he sneaked up behind her, grabbed her waist, and planted a kiss on her neck. He was alarmed by her screams, and couldn’t understand why she was shouting at him in English. He was even more alarmed by the angry-looking blond man approaching them, demanding to know what he’d done to upset his wife. His confusion deepened when another woman who looked just like his wife joined in, asking in Japanese what was going on.
From this confusing encounter, the truth emerged: the two women were twin sisters who’d been separated at birth after their parents’ divorce. One had been raised by their mother in Tokyo, the other by their father in Boston. The sisters were both architects, enjoyed ice skating, and had married a coworker, also both architects, and had both chosen to honeymoon in Niagara Falls. After the accidental reunion, the sisters called each other every day and visited each other twice a year. Their mother had died years before, but their father was still alive. When he met his long-lost daughter, it was the first time in his life that he’d wept in front of another person.
Another memorable story concerned a young married couple who were featured on a medical TV show in Germany. They wanted to get pregnant, so they took a screening test to rule out possibilities of genetic defects in their future child. This couple believed that they were the perfect match for each other. They had met at the same company (both were engineers), had the same taste in food and music, and even had the same allergies. The screening test showed them why they were such a perfect match: more than a quarter of their genes were the same. They eventually discovered that both their mothers had lived in the same area in their youth, and had received sperm from the same donor to conceive a child. At the time, the procedure was very new and there were few donors available, so sperm banks used the same donors in the same area. Confronted with the knowledge that they were half siblings, and facing enormous societal pressure, the couple split up. However, six months later, rumors surfaced of the couple reuniting and running away to England.
The article had ended there, but Granny Ng had longed to know more. She wanted to know what had become of them, if they had succeeded in eluding their interfering families and friends. Perhaps they’d assumed new identities? Would that mean they wouldn’t be able to get the same kind of work? Or maybe they had a sympathetic boss who helped connect them with another engineering firm in England? And what about children? Despite her concerns, Granny Ng liked to imagine they were living quietly and happily in their newfound anonymity. She wished she hadn’t listened to Kitty, who had made her leave the scrapbook behind when she was helping her pack for the tent village. “Don’t worry, Granny. You can collect more stories,” she’d told her.
Granny Ng didn’t know how long she’d been asleep. She came around to the faint smell of urine, and the sound of a woman gasping thirstily for air. A man’s grunts and moans joined the woman’s gasps, which got faster and throatier. A prickly warmth spread across Granny Ng’s cheeks and she covered her ears, then stuck her fingers in them, after which she could hear only the thumping of her pulse. After a few minutes of this, she took her fingers out of her ears. There was no sound, not even the click of the computer mouse. She wondered if the young man had left the room, and then it came—his quiet, crushing moan, like a wounded animal in its death throes.
The next morning Granny Ng found that she’d woken up half an hour earlier than usual and that the closet reeked of urine. She stuffed some tissue paper into her nostrils and crossed her arms tightly as she waited for the young man to get up and out of the house. As she listened to the noises that had become so familiar by now—the jazz station on the radio, his singing, the blast of the shower, the clarinet squeakily climbing scales—each one felt like a minor affront, painfully drawing out the moments she had to spend next to the urine-caked towel.
At the slam of the front door, Granny Ng got up and filled a bucket with warm, soapy water, moved the plastic storage boxes and her sleeping bag out of the way, and started scrubbing the closet floor, becoming increasingly agitated with the effort. In just a few minutes she had grown uncomfortably hot and her back and elbows were aching.
For the rest of the day she tried to go about her routine, but found herself stopping in the middle of washing the dishes or wiping down a cabinet, and had the dreadful feeling that the experience did not wholly belong to her. These dishes were not hers, nor the cabinet, nor the cloth in her hand. No one even knew she was doing any of this.
“All this effort,” she muttered, “and for what?” It took a great force of will to finish each chore, until finally she gave up. The tasks she had once been eager to do now felt like a punishment, a sentence.
The lazy cleaner was coming today. Just before eleven o’clock, when Granny Ng took her place inside the closet, she was surprised by her sudden violent feelings toward Mrs. Lee.
“I do your work, and then I hide myself in here while you laze about. What use are you on this earth?!”
Half an hour after Mrs. Lee’s arrival, as Granny Ng was imagining the woman halfheartedly dragging a cloth across the kitchen counters and stealing snacks from the fridge, the phone rang. Granny Ng heard her speak quite animatedly for about five minutes to the person at the other end; her loud, grating laugh; then the sound of the front door slamming. After waiting awhile, Granny Ng came out of her hiding place and looked around. The cleaner had left a note on the fridge door for the young man: “Mr. Mok, My apologies. Must leave a few minutes early today. Son called home sick from school. Usual chores taken care of. Thank you.”
It was unnecessary for her to leave the note—the young man would have no idea when she’d actually come and gone—but she liked to do things like this to appear more honest than she actually was. That was one of the many small, subtle deceits that seemed to be second nature to the woman. From the beginning, the notes had struck Granny Ng as arrogant and disrespectful, and she had made a point of disposing of them whenever the cleaner felt compelled to leave one. That day, though, she left Mrs. Lee’s note on the fridge door and had a cup of tea on the sofa. Let him be deceived, she thought. I can’t always be looking out for him.
She picked up the remote control and turned on the television. Immediately, the faces and voices made her feel a little better. During the course of the day, she watched a cooking program, a talk show, a travel show, a wildlife documentary, and a drama set in a police academy. She got up from the sofa only to use the toilet and get an apple from the kitchen. By the time she realized she’d forgotten to make any food for herself, it was too late; the young man was due to return any minute. Granny Ng went to sleep hungry, annoyed at how she’d let time slip away from her and feeling nauseated by all the TV she’d watched that day.
It was not enough to live among the objects and habits of another person; she needed to sit down with someone over a cup of hot tea and bean cake. She tried to distract herself by reinvesting her attention in fixing things around the house: darning the young man’s socks, washing the blinds and the windows, leaving him dinner twice a week. But still, she missed the company of friends.
She pulled a few maps down from the bookshelf and began looking for the location of her first tent village, where Kitty and Uncle Chow had taken her in. At the time she had not fully warmed to the experience of communal living, everyone in such close quarters and knowing one another’s business. But now she looked back on that time with a regretful appreciation and longing.
It took her some time to work out a route from the young man’s house to the tent village, and she was a little disheartened to find that it was farther than she’d imagined. It would take almost an hour and a half to get there by bus, and would involve three route changes. She was determined, however, to make the journey.
She decided she should go the next day. She had enough money for the bus fare; she had not spent any of what she’d made at the last tent village, from begging and collecting recyclables. The problem was figuring out what she should bring. She couldn’t drop by both unannounced and empty-handed. In the end she managed to put together a satisfactory gift bag, and went to sleep that night more content than she’d felt in a long time.
Kitty and Uncle Chow were surprised and happy to see her, but were unable to completely hide their concern.
“Is everything okay, Granny?” they asked. “Did you get evicted again?”
“No, no. I’m fine,” said Granny Ng. “I just wanted to pay you a visit. I’m sorry I didn’t give you any notice.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? Do you have somewhere to stay?” asked Kitty.
“Yes, yes, a very good place,” said Granny Ng. “If you don’t believe me, look.”
She opened up the plastic garbage bag full of gifts and laid out the contents on the ground: a barely used towel, two bars of soap, four tins of pork cubes, four packets of instant ramen, a packet of AA batteries, three airline cosmetics bags with facecloths, razors, toothbrushes, and cotton buds, and half a bottle of laundry detergent.
“That’s all for you,” said Granny Ng. “If I had nowhere to stay, I’d be standing here with a bag full of my own things, wouldn’t I?”
“Well, I feel reassured,” said Uncle Chow.
“Thank you for these things, Granny. You really shouldn’t have,” said Kitty. Granny Ng noticed that Kitty didn’t seem that pleased, and she tried not to be upset by her friend’s lack of enthusiasm. She sensed there must be something else.
Upon her arrival, it appeared to Granny Ng that not much had changed in the tent village. She’d found Uncle Chow cooking soup on the stove, and Kitty at her tent a few spots over, cutting someone’s hair. She was in a bright blue tracksuit, chatting animatedly with her customer. The only noticeable difference was that there seemed to be slightly fewer tents in the village.
Uncle Chow handed her a bowl of soup. “Careful, it’s hot.”
“Beef?” asked Granny Ng.
“Vegetable,” said Uncle Chow. “I’m trying to lose weight.” He winked and patted his stomach, and it was then that Granny Ng noticed: his cheeks had a hollowness that she hadn’t seen before, and the silver specks in his beard seemed to have dulled.
“Times are getting tougher.” Kitty sighed. “The butcher used to give us his off-cuts for cheap, and the grocer would give us a good deal on rice and tinned food. We used to have friends around here. But last month, city officials did another sweep of the area. They not only evicted thirteen residents; they also went to the local businesses that were helping us and threatened them with fines.”
Uncle Chow shot a scowl at Kitty for revealing so much of their situation. He cleared his throat and smiled at Granny Ng.
“And you, Granny?” he asked. “You seem to be in very good health.”
“How are things at the other tent village?” asked Kitty.
Granny Ng shook her head. “I was evicted from there not long after I arrived.”
“Oh dear!” said Kitty.
“I went to another village. But I had to leave there, too, after a while. And then another village. I suppose I didn’t have much luck in those places.”
“But you seem fine now,” said Uncle Chow. “Did you go back to your son’s? Is that where you got all these things?”
Granny Ng looked at Uncle Chow’s thinned face and at Kitty, still so well-meaning and eager to help. They didn’t really know one another that well, and actually had little in common. However, they were the first people in years that she’d considered her friends, and she wanted to be honest with them. She wondered how she could explain her situation. On the one hand, it would be a relief to share her secret, and perhaps they would be pleased for her. On the other hand, she might be burdening them with this information. Kitty in particular would doubtless overlook the benefits of her situation and focus instead on the risks, and try and persuade her to leave the young man’s home before she got into trouble.
“Yes,” said Granny Ng. “I’m living at my son’s again. Don’t worry, he knows that I took all these things, and he’s very glad to help. Things are much better between us now.”
Granny Ng made sure to visit Kitty and Uncle Chow every few weeks. Each time, she brought something for them, usually tins of food, or fruit. But she knew the really useful items—firewood, gasoline—she had no way to carry by herself. Eventually she started looking around the house for money that the young man had absentmindedly left out. There was a large glass jar on the kitchen counter full of coins. He automatically stopped there on his way in from work, pulled out loose change from his trouser and jacket pockets, and threw it into the jar. It was a little over half full, and every week Granny Ng noticed a small dip where the cleaner had scooped a few coins from it—little enough to escape the young man’s notice, but enough, Granny Ng supposed, to make it worth her while. Granny Ng thought she could probably get away with taking a few coins as well. She felt guilty about it, and a little ashamed. But she told herself it was for a good cause, and that failing to share her good fortune with her less-fortunate friends was a greater crime.
After three weeks, she had collected a little over two hundred HKD. She took this money to Kitty and Uncle Chow, who refused to accept it, claiming they were already uncomfortable enough accepting her gifts. Although disappointed, Granny Ng felt it was important to relieve this awkwardness and did not insist. Instead, she began taking small electrical items from the house—a flashlight, a calculator, a handheld fan—and dropping them on the ground, shaking them, or throwing water on them. Then she took them to Uncle Chow to repair for a fee. Uncle Chow reluctantly accepted these jobs, but only after Granny Ng told him that if he didn’t, her son and daughter-in-law would find out about her clumsiness and get angry with her. He also insisted that she take a flask of soup back with her after each visit. She began adding the soup to the meals she left in the fridge for the young man, whose thank-you notes the following day became increasingly appreciative.
As much as Granny Ng was dedicated to helping her friends, she knew the visits were as much for her as they were for them. She looked forward to seeing them every few weeks, bringing food or supplies or damaged electrical items. While Uncle Chow worked on a newly battered radio or electric kettle, Granny Ng made soup in the communal kitchen, or drank tea and chatted with Kitty while she cooked some lunch or cut a neighbor’s hair. In the summer, she helped Kitty sew a new lining for her tent, and had her hair cut into a neat bob that let her feel a pleasant coolness on the back of her neck.
In the second week of October, the local homeless coalition held a community fair in the park. There were more than twenty different stalls that the tent villagers could visit, which offered free haircuts, vaccines, basic medical checkups, and eye tests. Although Granny Ng could no longer claim to be a tent villager, with Kitty’s help she managed to get a free pair of reading glasses and a medical checkup (the doctor gave her a clean bill of health, except for slightly low blood pressure). Uncle Chow had to be persuaded by Kitty to get a checkup, and was told he had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. “I don’t see the use of being told these things if you can’t do anything about them,” he grumbled.
Kitty persuaded Granny Ng to stay for the barbecue party. Granny Ng acquiesced, but urged Kitty to go and chat with her neighbors; she wasn’t feeling particularly sociable, and was happy to sit and listen to the music playing on the stereo. She settled herself on a plastic stool and nibbled on a single chicken kebab, balancing a paper bowl of soup on her lap that she intended to eat to keep her going for the rest of the night. She had felt fine about getting free tests and a pair of glasses from the fair, but now she suddenly felt like an interloper, taking from the needy. It was best, she thought, to stay on the sidelines and not draw attention to herself.
Her plan was not successful. Tent village residents and coalition volunteers kept coming up to her and asking if they could get her anything, why was she eating so little, did she need a blanket? Finally, the only way to reassure them and deflect their attention was to accept their food-laden plates, and to pretend she was chewing whenever they checked up on her.
Rocky, the construction worker, greeted Granny Ng and took a seat next to her. He was carrying a short-necked lute.
“Nice to see you again, Granny. Maybe I’ve had one too many beers, but I’m in such a good mood that I have to inflict my playing on our friends. You don’t mind, do you?”
Granny Ng shook her head, and surprised herself with a giggle that was almost girlish. Rocky stood up and announced, “I hope no one objects to my amateurish playing,” to which villagers responded with enthusiastic cheers. Rocky started playing and leading the others in renditions of popular folk songs and theme tunes from old television serials. At Rocky’s invitation, Kitty got up and sang the solo from one of these songs, startling Granny Ng with the melodiousness of her voice. The crowd urged her to sing the next one, then the next. She was a confident and theatrical performer, inviting the villagers to clap along and pausing to tease several of them with the song’s romantic lyrics. Kitty received her standing ovation with the effortless grace of a seasoned performer.
Rocky leaned over to Granny Ng and said, “It’s a shame she doesn’t sing more often. I hear she used to be a regular on the hotel circuit. Now it’s all karaoke machines.”
“I thought she was a hairdresser,” said Granny Ng.
“She was.” It was Rocky’s wife. Granny Ng had not noticed until now that she’d taken a seat beside her. She looked a little more plump than before, though it might have been the billowy floral shirt she was wearing.
“She just sang for fun,” asserted Rocky’s wife. “She never made it as a real singer.”
When Kitty came back to the group, she was a little breathless and excited, her face flushed. “I hope I didn’t make a nuisance of myself out there.” She smiled.
“We were saying what a shame it is that you don’t sing for us more often,” said Rocky.
“You have a very smooth voice,” added Granny Ng.
“You’re so kind,” said Kitty. “It’s nice to have an appreciative audience.”
At the request of her neighbors, Kitty agreed to an encore. She chose a folk song, which Granny Ng recognized as a popular tune from the ’70s. As Kitty sang, the melodious strains of her voice spun and floated above them all, toward the darkening sky, like an invocation to an unknown god.
On the third day of December, Granny Ng was caught and arrested. The young man had installed a surveillance system, whose cameras had recorded the movements of a small, elderly woman wandering around the house. The police found her in the closet, curled up on her side. She looked up nervously at the officers, a middle-aged male and a younger female, who stared back in surprise. Finally, the female officer called the young man from the living room.
“Looks like we’ve found your burglar, sir.”
The female police officer—she introduced herself as Officer Wong—helped Granny Ng up, and apologized when she handcuffed her. She asked her to sit down on the white futon sofa. The young man stood by the computer table, regarding her warily, as if she were a wild animal. Granny Ng avoided the young man’s stare, although she would have liked nothing better than to get a proper look at him. While Officer Wong surveyed the inside of the closet, she said to her colleague, “Officer Tang, would you like to begin?”
Officer Tang was standing over Granny Ng, scratching his balding head and seemingly at a loss for words. Finally, he squatted down in front of her and said, “Granny, are you comfortable?”
Granny Ng nodded. “Quite comfortable, thank you. But these handcuffs…”
“Yes, I’m sorry about that,” said Officer Tang. He pulled a slim notebook and pen from his jacket pocket. He tapped the pad a few times before asking, “Do you realize, Granny, that you’ve broken the law?”
Granny Ng bit her lip. She stared at the edge of a small half-moon indentation in the carpet, where one of the legs of the computer table had shifted.
“This is private property,” he continued, “belonging to this gentleman here. If Mr. Mok decides to press charges—”
“Why did you say my name?!” said the young man, at a volume that seemed to surprise even himself.
“I think it’s a bit late for that,” said Officer Wong, peeling a Post-it note from the closet wall. “I imagine she knows quite a lot about you already.”
Officer Tang continued, “If Mr. Mok decides to press charges, you could be up for counts of breaking and entering, trespassing—”
“And theft,” added the young man.
“What items have been stolen, Mr. Mok?” asked Officer Wong.
“Well, food, mostly.”
“Mostly? Anything else? Anything of value?”
The young man hesitated, then shook his head.
“I see.” Officer Tang noted this in his book, then stood up and rubbed his knees, which were sore from squatting. “Granny, my colleague and I here need to fill out a report, and for that we need to ask you some simple questions. It would be much better if you could cooperate with us on this.”
Granny Ng nodded.
“Good. Now, can you please tell me your full name?”
“Ng Shui Lin.”
“Sixty-three. No, wait—sixty-four.”
“How long have you been living here?”
Granny Ng finally stole a glance at the young man, who was staring at the wall over her shoulder with an expression of nervousness and quiet anger.
She answered softly. “One year.”
“What!” The young man was almost shouting, his face reddened. “Why did you do this? Is this your idea of fun? Why aren’t you at home with your children and grandchildren? Do they even know where you are?”
The officers asked the young man to calm down, and suggested that they continue the investigation at the station.
Granny Ng and the young man were each interviewed for half an hour. The young man told Officer Tang that for the past few months, he had begun to notice that food was going missing. He also noticed that household supplies like soap and toilet paper were getting used up a lot more quickly than usual. At first he’d thought little of it, putting it down to his own absentmindedness; perhaps Mrs. Lee, the cleaner, had left him a note about it and he’d forgotten. After all, he would also lose track of other things: he’d forget where he’d put a flashlight or an extension cable, for example, and then after a few weeks it would turn up on its own. But after some time, a vague, nagging doubt began to visit him just before falling asleep at night. The following morning, before leaving for work, he would quickly check around the house for signs of disturbance, but found none.
Again, he tried to put it down to his own paranoia, and reasoned that he’d probably been working too hard and spending too much time alone. But once in a while he would check the rooms, the cupboards, the closets, finding nothing. He never found anything, but the nagging doubt continued to visit him at night, and during the weekend, at certain times in the day, he would get the feeling that he was not alone. The surveillance system was expensive, but it gave him some peace of mind. He said he only wished he’d thought of it sooner.
By the time the officers had finished their interrogation, the young man had learned some more details about the old woman: that she was homeless and had broken into his home the previous winter, had set up a sleeping space for herself in the spare closet, where she had managed to live undetected for almost a year. He found this difficult to accept, as he was sure he’d checked that closet, but then admitted that, yes, perhaps in his haste he hadn’t bothered to push the hanging clothes aside to check behind the plastic storage boxes. He also learned that she’d spent her days cooking, cleaning, doing chores around the house, and getting electrical items repaired for him. His cleaner had not, as he’d believed, had a surge of conscientiousness. After coming home from the police station, he opened up the closet and, overcoming his feelings of queasiness, gathered the old woman’s things into a garbage bag. There wasn’t much there—a sleeping bag, some clothes, two empty water bottles, a thin stack of letters addressed to her son, and some drawings and Post-it notes lining the walls.
Ken Mok spent the following week in a state of indignation and embarrassment. He wanted to share the burden of his victimhood with other people—his father, his coworkers, the woman who no longer wanted to speak to him—but he decided against it. His father would see this incident as further proof of his son’s stupidity and incompetence. How can a person not know that a stranger is living in their house? For a year! His coworkers would no doubt see this as a ripe opportunity for ridicule. The day after the arrest, there was a small article in several newspapers, which identified the young man as “a 33-year-old IT professional. The old woman was identified as Ng Shui Lin, 64 years old. The woman appeared to be of normal mental health. When police asked her why she had lived in secrecy at the man’s home for almost a year, she replied, ‘I had nowhere to live.’”
A few days later, a colleague emailed him another article about the incident, which someone else had sent him from a news website. The subject line read, “How Dumb Is This Guy?” Mr. Mok assured himself that this wasn’t directed at him personally. It would be impossible for anyone to know the true details of the incident; there must be hundreds of thirty-three-year-old IT professionals living in the area. He searched for the story online and found that brief articles had appeared in some sixty-seven news outlets, mostly Chinese websites. To his relief, he found that in all of them, he remained anonymous.
After some time and, he thought, an unusual amount of persuasion from the police officers handling the case, Mr. Mok decided to drop the charges against the old woman. The officers managed to convince him that she posed no real danger to him, and that they would make sure she was returned to the care of her son and daughter-in-law. Immediately after agreeing to drop the charges, Mr. Mok installed a more advanced security system in his home. Any instance of the alarm going off would send an alert straight to his cell phone, so that even at work he could feel reassured.
Mr. Mok tried to return to his old routines with the same normalcy and thoughtlessness as before, but found that a new nagging feeling had replaced the old one. This manifested as a dense weight in his lungs, like a cloud of stone, and seemed to appear at odd, inexplicable moments: when he set foot in the house after work; when he stepped out of the steam of the bathroom; when he dropped a cake of ramen noodles into a pan of boiling water. This gradually affected his posture, and he developed a slight stoop.
From time to time, he opened the closet door and peered inside. It still seemed unbelievable to him that a person could have stowed herself away there for all that time. The inhumanity of it both saddened and repulsed him. There was no trace at all of the stranger having lived there, and this unnerved him more than if he’d found some scrap of evidence—a hairpin, or a stray button.
He had trouble sleeping. He would wake in the middle of the night and feverishly check the closet, then the doors, the windows, even the cupboards. After a few weeks, the house had fallen into its former state of subtle disarray. His habit of looking for things and expecting to find them in their right places was gradually undermined by his tendency to distractedly throw things in any available cupboard or drawer space. One day, upon arriving home, he caught his brief moment of disappointment when he noticed there was no Post-it note on the fridge, and realized that he’d hoped this act of care and attention had somehow magically transferred to Mrs. Lee.
Eventually Mr. Mok acknowledged how much the old woman had been taking care of things, and how little Mrs. Lee had been doing all these years. He fired her, and placed an advertisement for her replacement in the local classifieds. He called the newspaper the next day to withdraw the ad, deciding he would rather not have another stranger in his house. The house fell into further disarray. That dense, weighted feeling grew stronger, and his stoop grew a little deeper, so he had the air of someone perpetually cold.
One Saturday morning, Mr. Mok phoned the police station and asked for the officers in charge of the case. Officer Wong took his call. She barely concealed her surprise, but was guarded when answering his questions about the old woman. Finally, after several minutes of assuring her of his benign intentions, she told him to come down to the station. There, she and Officer Tang told him that soon after the old woman’s arrest, a search had gone out for her next of kin (she had refused to tell them the whereabouts of her son, claiming she had forgotten). It was outside of their normal scope of involvement, but the officers felt badly for the old woman, and posted an appeal for her relatives to contact the police.
After a week with no reply, during which time the old woman was placed in a shelter, Officer Wong managed to track down the old woman’s son and daughter-in-law. They claimed to have been completely ignorant of the situation. When questioned about their lack of action at the time of her disappearance, they said she’d left a note about visiting a relative. They added that they’d received a letter from her some time later, informing them of her decision to live at a friend’s house, and that she was quite happy there.
“The funny thing,” said Officer Tang, “is that on the surface they looked like such a nice, respectable sort of couple. He’s a teacher, and she works for one of those fashion places—”
“Louis Vuitton,” said Officer Wong. “But nothing too exciting; she works in the accounting department.”
“They just didn’t look like the kind of people who’d let their own mother wander the streets,” said Officer Tang.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” said Officer Wong, “why exactly are you trying to find her?”
“I just want to make sure she’s all right,” said Mr. Mok, surprised to hear the words come out of his mouth. “Believe it or not, I feel a little responsible.” Before he could help himself, he blurted out, “I was thinking of giving her a job.”
The police officers looked dubious.
“As a housekeeper,” he continued. “She did a good job of keeping the place in order. I suppose I never fully appreciated it at the time.” As soon as he heard himself saying it, it really didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
The police officers told him the son and daughter-in-law had placed her in a nursing home, which, in the end, said Officer Wong, was probably no better for her than if they’d never tracked them down. “You know the kinds of things that happen in there.”
The officers helped Mr. Mok find the name and number of the nursing home. He called that day, pretending to be the old woman’s son. The receptionist sounded surprised to hear from him. He asked if he could visit her that day. The receptionist told him visiting hours were over, and when he asked if he could come by the next morning, she informed him that the home needed at least twenty-four hours’ notice to prepare the residents for visitors.
“What do you mean, ‘prepare’?” asked Mr. Mok.
The receptionist responded with an edge of impatience to her voice. “Some of our residents have very particular needs. We prefer to avoid making family members distressed, particularly young children. Some of our residents have difficulty controlling their behavior.”
“Well, it’s just me, and I don’t mind,” said Mr. Mok.
“It’s company policy,” snapped the receptionist. Then, in a gentler, rehearsed voice, “Please call at least twenty-four hours in advance to schedule a visit. Thank you.”
She hung up before Mr. Mok could reply. When he called the number again, it went straight to a recorded message: a softer, kinder version of the receptionist’s voice. Mr. Mok was left wondering uneasily about the kind of place the old woman was staying in. Well, I suppose I’ll find out soon enough, he thought. He made a mental note to call the following morning and schedule a visit for the weekend. That night, however, he received a call from his mother telling him that his Aunt Flora had died, and the funeral rites would take place that Saturday and Sunday. Mr. Mok promptly gave his assurance that he would be there. He briefly considered visiting the old woman after his return, but remembered that it was generally considered bad luck to visit someone after a funeral. Or was that limited to visiting pregnant women and people with young children? Whatever the case, he decided he would have to postpone it. He spent the following weekend fishing with his father, who chastised him for his poor technique but otherwise didn’t complain about his company.
When the next weekend was almost upon him, his colleagues reminded him of the company softball game against the accounting and sales divisions. His division won, and a colleague whom he believed had never thought much of him patted him on the back and said, “Good game.” The following weekend, the woman who’d stood him up several months ago invited him to a weekend away at her favorite hot-springs resort. He learned that she had just split up with her boyfriend, and suspected that he would be no more than a distraction for her, but he agreed anyway. The touch of another person, even without emotion, was better than nothing. And so it happened: one thing after another prevented him from arranging a visit to the old woman, and as his life became filled with more and more vaguely pleasing distractions, the thought of her began to grow ever more distant, and the cloud of stone that resided in his lungs seemed to lighten a little every day.