San Francisco row house. Lavender. Three stories high, laundry chute, legs dangling over the cold metal edge, kicking echoes with my feet.
That Halloween, I was a Cheerio box. Yellow. Charlie Brown yellow. A good yellow. Painted cardboard, nutrition facts, bigger than life. People followed me around and read me. I yelled at them. I was not a honey nut.
Some houses gave candy. Some, apples. Some, raisins. One guy saved his pennies all year for us. We would see eye to eye.
Mom, always sick. You went to her bed to say Hello because you knew she wasn’t really sleeping.
If you lay down next to her, cheek pressed into her pillow, she would braid your long black hair. She told me: teachers did not live at school. Dentists sometimes played basketball. Pilots drove cars. Moms had nightmares.
I had nightmares as a baby. Kicking and clammy and mewing and grumbling. Mom asked me once, What did you have to be scared of at two weeks old?
Later, a cold radiator under the window by her hospital bed. I wanted to ask Mom if she was scared to sleep in the hospital with all the beeps and dings.
Ten was different than nine.
The dying did not always shout and scream and grip their chest before they went. The dying mumbled softly and gurgled and hummed and dreamed.
The dead did not bleed. An epiphany.
Outside the dime store, Sour Patch Kids melted in my pocket. Sour sucked off, saving sweetness for later.
Budding breasts hidden under an oversized sweatshirt.
I traded my shark tooth for a classmate’s Walkman, wanted to plug my ears so that I could not hear my own footsteps on the pavement. If I couldn’t hear me, then they couldn’t hear me, then they couldn’t see me.
Helicopters buzzed overhead, low, made shadows that flickered in the shop’s window. I admired my reflection’s long hair, greasy and tangled.
Begging neighbors for candy, costumed and huge and yellow, no longer my thing at Eleven.
Who says that Twelves don’t work?
The dead still needed us. The dead had hospital bills. Mother’s debt. Father’s need.
Summer fog. On MUNI, crisscrossing through Chinatown, Japantown, The Marina. Delivered money for an “accountant” of a friend of a girlfriend of an uncle. Backpack stuffed full with thick stacks, wrinkled ones and tens and twenties, bound in blue rubberbands.
I watched a homeless man under the freeway floss his teeth. I listened to an elderly Latina speak fluent Cantonese with the fishmonger on Clement Street. I saw a cashier at the Pak-n-Save pocket change from a cigarette sale. I watched two teenage girls walking in Duboce Park, arms wrapped around each other, slender fingers slipped into the waistbands of each other’s jean shorts.
Money running delivery to a barbershop. Delivery to a mechanic. Delivery to a drycleaner. Delivery to a small apartment above a Chinese bakery, the dense air full of coconut and sugar and almond. Muffled clanking of metal mixing bowls, ceramic cups.
Waiting, the woman’s counting. One eye on me; one, the stacks.
Her statement, lilting Mandarin: Why don’t you smile? Her question: How is your uncle? Aren’t you scared carrying all this around?
Me, needy and germane: No one sees me.
Outside, my red jelly sandals, thin and flimsy on the city streets. Hair pinched in the empty backpack’s zipper.
A white man licked an ice cream cone, paused, looked at me, smiled with sugar-iced lips. Whistled.
I tucked my head in, ripped the hair from my scalp.
Steep hill outside the row house, the concrete smooth, no trees, no buckling. No driveway dips to stop rolling downhill.
I guess that I’ve delivered thousands and thousands. I pass a payphone. I think of the special phone booth installed in Japan for families to call loved ones they’d lost after the tsunami and earthquake. I wish that I can call Mom, tell her everything I’ve seen.
Sun is bright and grim overhead. Gum in my hair, a tacky peppermint nest.
Later, shorn to its roots, blunt scissors, a stubble freedom.
The beginning of a cold neck, red ears. The beginning.
Nancy Au’s stories appear or are forthcoming in The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Word Riot, Liminal Stories, Foglifter, Forge Literary Magazine, Midnight Breakfast, Flapperhouse, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Identity Theory, Prick of the Spindle, among others. She was awarded the Spring Creek Project collaborative residency (Oregon State University), which is dedicated to artists and writers inspired by nature and science. She was an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative writing at California State University Stanislaus. Two journals recently nominated her flash fiction for The Best Small Fictions 2017 anthology.