An excerpt from “Volunteer Work” by Andy Yeh
CHARMING HOME WITH MOUNTAIN VIEWS, GOOD SCHOOL DISTRICT
And because of the low crime rate, children ran wild but well mannered, murmuring in response when asked the where and the what, the kids chirping in the chaparral without chaperones, between transmission towers that rise from the shrubs.
And the heat was a thing, a ceaseless argument between counties over which was hottest—maybe it’s one degree less here but it feels like a fucker. Though Ree’s son, Danny, was aware of the approaching fire season, he and friends played in the ichthyotic hills, the earth victimized by countless controlled burns, with camera and script shooting unfinished movies about unfamiliar things, all disco and infidelity, left incomplete by the speed of new ideas, sure, but let’s not discount run-ins and rail-againsts with older boys, wildfire mad, who flicked lit cigarettes and chased them with freeway flares stolen during a slow crawl lane closing. Still, Danny carried forth and rewrote, ext. to int., day to night, if only to have something to tell his mother when she bothered to ask; his story, the plot of daily life as a youngster in fictive America, was the only competition the television had, though that might have been true only during commercial breaks.
And now a commercial break.
Recurring was one for migraines starring an Asian grandmother in perpetual pain, head and existential, and look—not even bouncing babies of varying ethnicities; not even her favorite fruits and vegetables, so important to the elderly; not even speed-walks and yard-work and warbling wake-up birds could keep her from kneading her temples and shaking her head no no no.
And Melanie had gone in for the commercial, was all but signed on and in wardrobe, only to be dismissed last minute when some higher-up admitted concern that viewers just wouldn’t believe a pretty girl could get headaches. Her mother, Hannah, had recapitulated this story to anyone who could hear, and once to a deaf man landlocked in checkout and unwilling to read her lips, all with the last part excluded, the reasoning. The omission was for their benefit. In its place, Hannah had an explanation: all the jobs were going to China.
And practice makes perfect; the story was weaponized. She made sure her arms were never crossed, her head tilted down at least twenty degrees when speaking. The tone of her voice and the vestigial smile of her closed lips she carefully modulated into a gesture of apology and intimate disclosure, and affording preparation, Hannah wore orange, a particular hue that stimulated fraternal moods (furthermore, a person wearing orange is statistically less likely to die in a car crash). Melanie’s failure turned out to be quite the crowd pleaser, and the crowd, if you can believe it, included Melanie herself.
Danny once overheard that his father’s official profession was in sales, though no one ever confirmed it; his part-time, of which Danny was aware, was to infuriate Ree. Like others in the trade, Ree’s husband suffered from functioning vocal cords. Over dinner with guests, he broke into arbitrary pockets of conversation to boast about the new corner house; his new salary; his brother’s new wife—all while aware of the financial troubles in current circulation and the hostility towards his brother, who everyone thought was a serial killer (see Los Angeles Times, Feb. ’97). The kid wanted to believe that the night would end in divorce, a brutal separation that cuts his lifespan in half, oh wouldn’t that be a fine deal, but from mother’s death squad eyes, he gathered she was past divorce. Divorce, after all, leaves a man living. Ree watched enough television to think she could get away with murder.
But Ree toggled and recalibrated; was she partly responsible for the bricking of breathable air? Her vermicelli dish, assembled rather than cooked, had been bland, and her three friends with their cooking show knowhow would certainly make faces about it on their drive home, especially Rachel, that mug of hers designed for such things. She had likely exited the womb disapprovingly, arms folded, and now that impossibly contorted face said to Ree, Why vermicelli? Who thinks vermicelli? Rachel once expressed something similar about falafels, as if the existence of such a thing was in direct conflict with her worldview and not something created precisely so that a whole portion of the human population could eat, as if since early man everyone everywhere subsisted on only tacos and rudimentary versions of Hawaiian Punch. It was Rachel’s everlasting disbelief and teeth bared to show it, teeth that came with fanfare and motorcade, that irritated Ree—but the vermicelli, that was Ree’s decision, and so she had only herself to blame if her friends hadn’t the stomach for it.
There: the cake to placate her friends, and as they ate—and they did eat—Ree attacked her husband in the kitchen, the Christmas sounds of her bracelets and bangles on his neck and arms the only evidence of acceptable abuse.
Summoned to the living room, his hands dripping with washing-up, Danny was given a single-arm hug by mother and sat between Rachel and Winnie. His mother, he noted, smelled of petrichor, and whether that was true or not didn’t matter.
Hannah waited until the crosstalk had its fadeout. “Such a handsome man now.”
Ree peered at her son and affected a Rachel facial expression. “I don’t know about that. Your sons—now those are lookers. They should be in movies with those looks.”
“No, no,” Rachel said. “He’s really turning into a stud.”
“Studs take showers, I’m sure,” Ree said. “Kid doesn’t.”
“I take showers.”
“Ooh, ya really don’t. Are you also gonna claim you’re doing well in school? ’Cause I can go claim that I’m a turkey burger—that’s what I can do.”
“I mean, we know you’re not a turkey burger.”
“Tell them how you got caught cheating on tests. Go ahead. Tell.”
Rachel. “Why cheat?”
“Well, I didn’t study and I wanted to pass the class…”
“He’s trying to impress you with his wit is what he’s doing,” his mother said. “You wanna make an impression, you should maybe get into Berkeley. Like Emma.”
The matriarchs beamed and congratulated Winnie, Winnie the magician, who performed her first trick—see how fast the cake vanishes! “Now, how old are you now, Danny boy?”
“You’re a little small for twelve,” Winnie said. “How’s your pituitary?”
“It’s all right. Thank you for asking.”
Hannah shushed her. “Twelve is still growing. Boys grow for a very long time. Look at his broad shoulders. You’ll see. He’s gonna be muscle man three thousand.”
“Doctor said he’s got some kind of growth disorder.”
“What? Am I wrong? You were there, that’s what he said.”
Danny fidgeted in cushioned quicksand.
“Your mother tells us you have trouble with things,” Winnie said.
“I don’t know. Like what things.”
“Oh, like school. Friends. Girls. Athletics. Staining your briefs. The briefs, right? Right.”
“That’s what they’re for.”
“Not with the feces,” Winnie said. “You should maybe wipe better. Wet the toilet paper. Do you know how to wipe properly?”
“Yes,” he said emphatically.
“Danny, look around. What do you see? What do we all have? We all have something in common,” his mother said.
“I don’t know. What.”
“Noses. We’ve all got noses. We’ve all got noses with a decent sense of smell. With that sense of smell, we can smell you could do some better wiping. And he doesn’t eat, he just doesn’t. Like he’s anorexic, he eats.”
“Bobby eats,” Rachel said. “He eats just the right amount.”
Intuiting a drop of sound and an encroaching disinterest in her friends, Ree mined her thoughts, excused herself, and returned carrying Danny’s bed sheets, the vaguely floral patterns augmented by crop circling wet stains.
“He should take some Desmopressin for that. No problem, I can get you some free samples,” Winnie said.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do with him. He’s weak. Physically. And his emotions, you know? I don’t know what he’s gonna do if anything comes his way that isn’t trying to feed him a good meal.”
“I’ll be all right, ma.”
“You’re wrong,” Ree said. “What do you know? You think cancer has a soft spot for babies and you’re a baby? Or that uncle of yours isn’t gonna one day think maybe it’s a good idea to take your life?”
The conversation finally took a detour into something else, summaries of last night’s television programs, of which Ree had a lot to say, and, for a few minutes, Danny could merge into the safety of the couch and let chitchat attrition take place. But they ran out of conversation—or was it that Ree had regained control?—and after a brief silence, resumed.
“Wanna tell ’em about the acne?”
“All over his body. I’m talking genitals, too.”
“As a mother could you please refuse to allow my genitals into the conversation?”
“Oh,” Hannah said. “My son is the same. Red all over.”
“I’m honestly surprised he has friends,” Ree said. “And the way he talks. He just mumbles and looks down. Not like your sons. Good talkers. Easy to see why they’re so popular.”
“He should see a specialist,” Winnie said. “Maybe if you play a sport or something. And you’re too pale. Maybe you need a specialist. Maybe if you wipe better.”
Danny looked up and saw that his mother and her friends were breathing heavy with adrenaline; their mouths in twitch and grin competition; their Sanpaku eyes halfway closed in some form of blunted affect; their hands so unsatisfied with every possible angle and position that they almost floated above their laps. A buzz had seized the room.
“Well,” Hannah said, consulting her wristwatch, “My place next time.”
With driveway emptied and alarm set, Ree offered Danny a two-arm hug, whispered thanks, and slipped a twenty in his pre-algebra binder. She agreed with herself, as she opened the knife drawer and returned to the finger her 3-carat diamond ring, that she had done a good job of staving off the tension between good friends, the kind that would reveal them to be acquaintances.
Read the rest of “Volunteer Work” in apt‘s third print annual, now available for purchase.
Andy Yeh exists in Southern California. Most people are unaware of this. He has work forthcoming in White Whale Review and Atticus Review.