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Excerpt

“A Far Distant Thing”

Souvankham Thammavongsa

April 8, 2020 
The following story is from Souvankham Thammavongsa's book of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife. Souvankham Thammavongsa is the award-winning author of four books of poetry and her fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Granta, the Paris Review, Ploughshares, Best American Non-Required Reading 2018, and the O. Henry Prize Stories 2019.

The mold on the walls started as little black dots near the floor. When nothing was done about them, they spread up to the ceiling. The mould looked like a field of black dandelions. That’s one of the things I think of when anyone asks me about where I’m from, where I grew up.

My parents and I lived on the edge of a tree-lined street with well-manicured lawns and long, winding driveways that led up to three-story houses—but we did not live in any of those houses. We lived in a one-bedroom basement apartment in the first building from the main street, before the road turned to take you deeper into the neighborhood, before the trees turned green and thick. My parents slept on a thin sponge mattress on the floor of the living room. Before they left for work every morning, they folded the mattress four times like a piece of paper and put it into the shoe closet.

I had my own room. My window opened out to a parking lot where I saw only two things: the headlights or the exhaust pipe of a car.

My friend Katie lived in the same building, but her apartment had a balcony and a different view. We walked to and from school together, but I never invited Katie over. I didn’t want her to see that my parents didn’t have a bedroom, so I was always over at her place. Katie had two older brothers who went to high school. Her brothers played football, and they always had various girlfriends around, making out with them in the stairwell of our building or on the couch in their living room. I don’t know what happened to Katie’s father, I just know that he wasn’t there, and I took that to mean it was something I shouldn’t ask about. Her mother worked at the same factory as Dad.

Dad didn’t like me going over to Katie’s apartment. He said, “I don’t want you going over there after school. I don’t want you hanging around those boys and their girlfriends sucking on each other like that. I don’t want you getting any ideas.” What Dad didn’t know was, I already had ideas—all the time. It’s just no one was interested in doing anything with me. He thought Katie’s family was a bunch of nobodies and I’d end up a nobody too if I kept spending time with them.

Dad always talked about life as if it spilled out all at once and we wouldn’t have time to think or do anything about what was going to happen to us. He talked like he had to tell me everything now because we’d never see each other again. I’d roll my eyes at him, but that only made him go on. It always circled back to how different Katie and I were, and how I wouldn’t get the same things she got in her life.

In spite of what he said, he did give me something Katie had. I had told him how much I liked the pink color of the walls in Katie’s bedroom. I couldn’t stop talking about it. So Dad went out and bought a can of red paint and a can of white paint—the pink paint was more expensive because it was popular and because they mixed the color for you at the store. Dad put a dollop of white into the red paint and stirred. When the paint was wet on the wall it looked pink, but when it dried it turned a dark pink, and there were smudges of red where the paint hadn’t mixed well. The paint didn’t cover up the mold. I didn’t say anything about that. I would just look at those dark pink spots and smile to myself. I had my own room, after all, and he was trying.

*

Dad worked in a nail polish factory. He had started out cleaning the floors. While he cleaned, he stood behind the workers on the line and watched them peel labels and stick them onto the nail polish bottles. It didn’t seem very difficult, he said. When the factory made cuts and offered the remaining workers less pay, many quit. Suddenly there were job openings on the line, and so Dad applied for one and got it. He got Mom a job there too. Even though those who worked on the line were now paid less than before, it was still more pay than what Dad had made as a cleaner. They both loved the job. The hours were long, but the work was steady and they had their weekends free.

One time, during his break, he told me that a man who worked on the line with him said something about the way he worked, mimicking his speed, scooping up everything around him. Dad thought it was a compliment so he pretended to pick things up too, agreeing that was the best way to work. He was happy someone at the factory was talking to him instead of pulling at the skin on the side of their eyes and laughing as he walked by.

It wasn’t until the foreman laid off a few more workers who couldn’t keep pace that they started to come up to him and say a word to his face that sounded like spitting. It took so much air to make that word, but the spit never arrived.

He asked me what they were calling him at the factory. “This thief thing. What is it?” I didn’t want to tell him. I wanted him to go on liking his job, to get up in the morning with a sense of purpose and pride like he did. I told him I had never heard of this word before. Then I turned away so I wouldn’t have to look at his face as he told me, “All you have to do is work hard. That’s all it is, hard work.”

*

Right after getting home from school, Katie and I would spend three or four hours on the phone with each other. With the sound of our families distant in the background, we talked about everything and nothing. We wanted to be writers then, and we liked to see how well we could describe the details of our day to one another, even though we were in every class together. We talked about the pretty girls in class—what they wore, how they styled their hair, how they laughed. And if one of them talked to us, we would go over every word they said, pick out exactly where the stress and silence and giggles fell, as if we were breaking some kind of secret code.

We wanted to be writers then, and we liked to see how well we could describe the details of our day to one another, even though we were in every class together.

Eventually, our talk would turn to wondering what it would be like to be rich. We knew what rich people were like. We’d see them in the mornings on garbage day, coming out of their homes and carrying their garbage bins to the curb. We couldn’t believe they had their own bin and could walk to their own curb. We had to carry our garbage to a tiny closet at the end of the hallway and drop the plastic bags down a hole in the wall. Katie and I were afraid someone would come up behind us and push us down the hole too. Sometimes, before taking out the garbage, we would call each other on the phone just to let the other know. “If I go missing, you know what happened,” she’d say. Sometimes we would even go to the garbage chute together. For a laugh, we’d take turns pushing each other from behind toward the hole—but not too hard. Just enough for us to feel our fear and then let it go.

*

On the second floor of our building lived a man who didn’t have a job. He sat by the window all day and smoked. When he saw me and Katie coming home from school, he’d yell out, “Hey girls. Sexsssy,” and then he’d laugh like it was just a joke. He laughed even louder when he saw how frightened I was. Later, he dropped the “Hey girls” part and simply said, “Sexsssy.” I hated seeing the orange dot glowing in the window above us. Katie knew how scared I was of him. She told me to ignore him, but I wasn’t like her, and I couldn’t do it. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll take care of him.” I didn’t want her to do anything. He was an adult man. He was stronger than the both of us.

The next afternoon, when we got to the building and we heard him say, “Sexy,” she looked up at him and yelled, “We’re TWELVE! You creepy fuck!” And because she’d said something, I felt I had to say something too. So I shouted, “I’ll cut it off! We’ll see what’s sexy then!” and we quickly ran inside the building and laughed maniacally in the stairwell. I liked the sound of our laughter then. Even though it was just the two of us there, the way it echoed and multiplied made us sound like more.

*

The school we went to was a forty-five-minute walk from our building. We rarely took the bus, except when it was terribly cold outside, but even then, we would try to walk if neither of us could manage to get the fifty cents for the fare, which was most times. Asking for fifty cents was like asking for a million dollars—when you don’t have it, you just don’t have it. Once, though, to teach me some kind of lesson when I asked for bus fare, Dad said, “You know how hard it is to make fifty cents? Why don’t you go outside and try to find one cent.” So I did. I went outside and searched the ground for some change but found none. When I came back inside, I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t even find one cent, so I understood how hard it was for him to make fifty of them. And yet, as I went to bed that night, I felt a coldness underneath my pillow. It was two shiny quarters.

*

There was a chain-link fence in the back alley of the building we lived in, and behind that fence was a dense green forest. It’s what separated our building from all those nice houses farther down the street. There was a small creek running through the middle of it, and from Katie’s balcony it looked like the side-part in a head of dark hair. We would grab at the metal fence and pull ourselves closer and closer to the top to get to the other side. Then we would find an area to lie on the grass and describe to each other what we could see. We went there to waste time and to avoid our usual path home.

One day, when we were in the forest, Katie told me the police had found a dead body back there. A girl about our age.

“You ever see a dead body before?” she asked me.

I thought of my grandmother at her funeral. She looked so peaceful it was like she was only sleeping. When I told Katie that, she said, “Yeah, that’s when it’s natural.”

Then Katie lay down on the ground, spreading out her arms and legs into the shape of a starfish. Her face went blank and she stared up at the sky. She lay there for about ten minutes, not moving or saying anything. In the shade, her skin appeared blue, and her collarbone stuck out. I didn’t like the quiet, or feeling like I was alone in the forest. The trees hovering over me seemed human, and I could almost feel their branches reaching out for me.

“Katie! Stop it!” I yelled. “Get up!” She didn’t move.

I kicked her leg.

She started laughing. Small, soft chuckles like someone was tickling her. And then she let out a loud scream. She continued to scream and scream, blotches of red covering her face, and then I began to scream with her. We muffled our giggles in between. We knew our screaming was just a joke because we were doing it together, but I tried to imagine what someone hearing us would think.

“Scared you, didn’t I,” she said when we finally stopped. “Why’d you go and do that for?”

“Just to see what you’d do. See how no one comes when they hear you screaming? You’re on your own.” She sounded a lot like Dad when he was giving me advice about how life was.

It was a dictionary. I had had my eye on it all year, looking at it whenever we went to the school library.

She went on: “Someone dumped that girl’s body here. You know, it could have been me. I saw a picture of her in the paper.” Then she sat up and brushed off the leaves from her clothes. She laughed again and said, “C’mon, it’s getting dark.”

We headed back to our building, but then Katie stopped and told me to stand still. She removed the straps of her red knapsack from her shoulders, unzipped a pocket, and reached inside. She handed a heavy grey book to me.

It was a dictionary.

I had had my eye on it all year, looking at it whenever we went to the school library. I’d thought about stealing it, but I was too afraid to ever do anything like that.

Katie said, “Look, I know you wanted this. So here”— she shoved it toward me—“take it.”

I put the dictionary in my knapsack and sealed the zipper up quickly. Then, for some reason, we both ran for the metal fence as if someone was chasing and gaining in on us and we screamed like there was. When we got to where we lived, we went our separate ways without saying a word to each other.

*

Soon after this, Katie and I would lose touch. Her mother got a promotion at the nail polish factory, and they moved out of the neighborhood. Maybe it was that. Maybe it was high school. I don’t think too hard on it—it was the way it was. We lose each other, or the way we know each other gets lost.

Before that, though, the last time we were together, we stood outside on her balcony to look at the sunset. We hadn’t ever seen one like it before. It had something to do with the way the Earth had lined itself up in the universe. Some rare planetary alignment. The sun was large and brilliant.

I told her, “Looks close, doesn’t it? Like it’s someplace we could walk to and grab a piece of for ourselves.”

She leaned over and clawed at the air.

*

I got to thinking on this time, Katie, all this stuff because I thought I saw her. I was standing at the crosswalk, on my way home after a night shift cleaning the office buildings downtown. At the sight of her on the other side of the street, and from the way she walked—assured, shoulders back, and looking straight ahead—I knew she did good with her life. She was wearing a dark blazer with a pencil skirt and carrying a briefcase. She looked the same as when I knew her, only stretched out and grown, powerful, in charge.

I wanted to run up to her, ask her if she was married or if she had kids, if she was happy. But if I asked her all that, she’d probably want to ask about me too, and  I didn’t want to talk about myself. I didn’t want her to see me as I was in my uniform and my work shoes. Sometimes people have a way of looking at you that makes you feel you have to explain yourself.

Then I thought of Dad waiting for me at home, still in the same building Katie and her family moved out of, and I didn’t want to have to explain that either. The light turned, and I watched Katie walk away from the rest of the crowd.

When I got home, Dad asked about my night at work and what I cleaned. Then he said, “Sit down, eat.”

I wanted to tell him that he’d been wrong about Katie. She wasn’t a nobody. Katie and I had been friends. Good friends, even. The memory of it, that it had happened, was worth something to me. I wanted to tell him that, but then he told me there was mould on the walls again and that I’d let it get out of hand.

__________________________________

The story “A Far Distant Thing” is excerpted from How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Copyright © 2020 by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Little, Brown. 




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