I was playing Scrabble Deluxe with my daughter, Samantha, when she asked me if I was a hawk or a fish.
“Your turn, Daddy.”
She tapped a letter-tile against the kitchen table. “Your turn, Dad.”
I swiveled the plastic game board, counter clockwise, so I could read the words right-side up, careful not to knock over the juice.
“Dad, see what I did? Bate.”
“Wait, what word is that? You mean, like the fishing-piece bait? I said, shaking my head. I rotated the board back to her. “B-a-t-e isn’t a word.”
“Yes, it is, Dad.” Sammy reached down into her purse and took out an iPad. “Bate. Intransitive verb. Of or relating to falconry or hawks. To beat the wings in an attempt to escape from the perch.”
She sipped her coffee. But her lips didn’t move. In a few more hours, she’d be on a plane to Los Angeles.
“I’m taking the job, Dad. You’ll be fine. Just keep doing your memory games, but not all the time.” She clicked save on my computer then closed down the lid; eyelashes fan-drying a tear.
I leaned over the Scrabble board and finger-hopped from tile-to-tile. “B . . . a . . . I . . . t. You need an I, not an E.”
“Look, Dad, you’re always saying how you only want what’s best for—”
“Don’t you have an I? After all, it’s your favorite letter,” I said and plucked the E from the board.
“Dad, are you a hawk or a fish? Don’t you remember?”
I remembered how Sammy used to play with her food at breakfast. She’d pucker her lips and with a great big yawn, lift up her pink spoon: Watch this, Daddy! And three soggy Cheerios would quiver, then whoop, get sucked up like krill.
“I’m a . . . I’m . . .”
She reached for my left arm and patted. It still felt numb all the way to my wrist, ten months after the stroke.
“I have to go now, Dad. The taxi, it’ll be here any minute.”
Letters and numbers—all lined up on my tile rack: G2, T1, U1, I1, Q10, C3, D2, N1. But I couldn’t form the words.
I spun the board back, harder than expected—tile pieces rattling, then lifting off the grooves. My orange juice spilled on the table, and it soaked Sammy’s ticket, the one she’d printed out last night.
She pushed off from the table and went to the front door, kneeling next to her suitcase. After uncoiling a blow-dryer, she walked passed me toward the hallway.
I imagined Samantha gazing into the bathroom mirror and recalling her past: maybe the ticket would morph into a half-soaked diaper, hers as an infant; and who’d want to blow-dry that?
I started to feel better, enough to lift my eyes away from her suitcase.
No sound from the bathroom still, so I folded a paper towel into squares and bent down and rubbed the juice off the wood tiles, and if I closed my eyes tighter, Samantha might pop in her retainers—the ones she kept losing—pinch out her soft lenses, and with a home-sick twitch, she’d explain to her new boss in L.A. that the timing wasn’t right: she couldn’t possibly leave her perch here in Woodside, Queens.
Then a car honked outside.
On the carpet, I spotted another tile, wet and glistening, but if I gave it more time, maybe it would dry into a sticky film—until I remembered:
Samantha, are you a hawk or a fish?
A fish, Daddy! A fish!
And I would hold out my arm.
You’re a hawk, Samantha. So fly past me.
Suddenly, the kitchen lights flickered, the way all our lights acted when 2,000 watts were set loose.
It wasn’t right for a hawk to look back in mid-flight, against its own nature and spinning, counter-clock foolish.
As I rose to wipe the table, I heard a blow-dryer humming in white noise. It sounded like a seashell, the way its air kept seeping in, then out of my life.
Jamez Chang’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Underground Voices, Bartleby Snopes, FRiGG, Prime Number, Menacing Hedge, and Counterexample Poetics. After graduating from Bard College, Jamez went on to become the first Korean-American to release a hip-hop album, Z-Bonics (1998), in the United States. He currently works in the video game industry in NYC. Visit: www.jamezchang.com.