Excerpt

“Umbrella”

Yang Huang

March 12, 2018 
The following is from Yang Huang's collection, My Old Faithful. The ten interconnected stories center on a close-knit, Chinese family over the course of 30 years. Yang Huang's debut novel, Living Treasures, won the Nautalis Book Award silver medal in fiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Margins, Eleven Eleven, Asian Pacific American Journal, and elsewhere.

A clap of thunder seems to rip open a hole in the sky. I watch rain pelt down in hard sheets from the upstairs balcony and worry about my younger daughter, who is stranded at school. Lian is not a strong kid, and last night she complained about menstrual cramps. I mustn’t let her be soaked on her way home and catch her death of cold.

I take out the largest umbrella from storage and dust it off. May has come before I could have our rain gear fixed. Two of its bamboo ribs are broken, so a corner of the oilcloth is drooping. It cannot be folded into a backpack or opened with a flick of a finger. I push it against the wall to slide the runner up the shaft, until it clicks with a squeak. A giant taupe canopy shadows me as I hold up the antique, the only umbrella useful in this downpour. I close it up to put on my raincoat, then hurry away to Lian’s school.

Nearing a noodle shop, I catch sight of a tall young man who stands in the doorway holding open his raincoat. The hair on the back of his head is wet and smooth, gleaming jet-black. Passing by him, I become curious about the face the man wears with this fine physique, so I peer back. He bows his head with one cheek pressing on a young woman’s temple. There behind the breast of his raincoat hides the little face of my fifteen-year-old daughter.

I whisper, “Lian,” and clear my throat.

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Lian loosens her grip on the man’s waist. With her bangs heaped to one side on her forehead, she appears more surprised than I do. I’m almost too ashamed to speak, but she asks me, “Dad, what’re you doing here?”

I thump the ground with my umbrella. “I brought you this, so you wouldn’t get drenched.” From the corner of my eye I feel the young man watch me.

“Professor Chen,” he calls me. I glare at Lian while he explains, “You taught child psychology my sophomore year. I’m from the physical education department. We now practice teaching at Lian’s high school—”

I thrust the umbrella into Lian’s hands. “Take this and go home!”

Lian sways her hips and faces the young man, who takes her umbrella to open it for her. He pushes the runner up the shaft and locks it with a flick of his wrist. I reach out to warn him not to break more bamboo ribs, only to smooth down the flabby corner of the oilcloth.

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“Here you go,” he says.

Lian carries the umbrella on her shoulder, rolling the handle a bit while smiling at him. I cannot watch them flirting anymore and pull Lian by the elbow. “Off you go.” The young man steps into the rain, but I wave him back. “You don’t have to follow us home,” I tell him. “Give me your name and phone number. We have to talk.”

He gropes in his pants pocket to find an empty cigarette pack, jots down a few lines, and passes it to me. His fingers scald my skin when our hands touch. I raise my head and see he’s flushed to the roots of his hair. I walk into the rain and nudge Lian home without another word.

*

Lian drags her heeled slippers noisily into the living room. Her half-wet bangs are combed out neatly, as if dabbled with mousse. She plops down on the sofa and crosses her legs, letting her red-dotted pajama pants climb up her ankles.

“He was taking me home because he wore a raincoat, and I didn’t have an umbrella.” She eyes her mother for support. “Then it started to pour and we had to find shelter.”

“Shelter? You call being in his arms shelter?” The words fly out of my mouth before I can think. My wife squeezes my wrist, but I pull away. I’m not wrong. Lian is the one who’s making a mistake by lying to her father.

Her eyelids droop. “Leave me alone.”

“Lian, I wouldn’t tell you this if it wasn’t true.” I fumble in my pocket for a cigarette before I recall I quit more than a decade ago. “You’re not only our youngest, but also the brightest. You can have it all—career, love, and family. Do you really want to throw away everything to mess with your PE teacher?”

She bites her lower lip to conceal a smile. “His name is Kai Shi, and he was only taking me home.”

I tell her in the softest tone I can manage, “Lian, I saw what I saw.”

She leaps up from the sofa and knocks off a doily. “There wasn’t much space under the roof, and we stood close. So what?” Standing with her arms akimbo, she looks like a spring mannequin in a shop window. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to do my homework.” The door of her room bangs closed.

My wife pats my hand. “Good try, old man.” She stoops to pick up the doily and smoothes it out on the arm of the sofa.

I stride to the balcony to watch the rain, and spare her the news that I’m going to smoke again.

*

I fasten the top button of my black tunic suit as I stroll toward the playground. I want to look a bit severe to my former student Kai, who is teaching his class to throw the javelin. Kai, in his parrot-green sportswear, holds the shaft on a cord grip at ear level, runs seven steps, then halts suddenly to hurl the javelin overhand and send it soaring through air. It lands in the sparse grass with its point striking the field, its upturned tail trembling in the breeze.

I cough loudly in order to drown out the boys’ murmuring. Kai sees me and nods slightly. “You’re going to practice like I demonstrated.” He lines the boys up. “One person at a time, and play safe.” He waits for a boy to toss a javelin that drops flatly to the ground, then walks toward me with his hands in his pockets.

“Professor Chen, I didn’t get your call.”

“I came to take my daughter home and thought to make a quick stop here.” He avoids my eyes, while I swing my umbrella like a heavy cane. “You know it’s against school regulations for you to pursue a student, don’t you? You can get disciplinary treatment for this, which will reflect badly on your résumé.”

“We aren’t dating.” He scrapes sand with the spikes under his sole and marks parallel bruises on the ground. “Besides, she isn’t my student. I teach the boys’ team.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-three.”

I take out a pack of Marlboros to offer him a cigarette, but he pushes my hand away. So I tap the cigarette on the carton, then put it into my own mouth. “Can you tell me what I taught you in the child psychology class?” I strike a match.

“Child psychology?”

“Yeah.” The smoke burns my throat, so I breathe slowly. The cigarette that used to relax me makes me nervous.

“Oh, boy.” He paces a few steps with his hands on his hips. “I remember in the last class, you said it’s beneficial to raise a girl like a half-boy so she’ll grow up to be more assertive.”

“And?”

“Vice versa, to raise a boy like a half-girl so he’ll become an empathetic person.”

I feel more impressed than I would like to, and stub out my cigarette. “I didn’t teach you to take advantage of your students, did I? Lian is only fifteen.” I step forward. “She ought to go to a university and meet some boy her own age.” We stand so close I can smell a warm body scent and sickly sweet aftershave emanating from him. “I want a promise from you—will you stay away from her?”

 

You know it’s against school regulations for you to pursue a student, don’t you? You can get disciplinary treatment for this, which will reflect badly on your résumé.”

 

He folds his arms across his chest, with a confident smile of someone who enjoys his strong body and pretty face. “I already told you we weren’t dating.”

“But will you promise me?”

“Promise you what? Never do what I haven’t done?” He shakes his head. “Excuse me, I have to get back to my class now.” Kai blows his whistle to warn a boy, who whips the knees of the boy behind him with the tail of his javelin. “Put that down!” he shouts. “I didn’t give you permission to punch holes in someone else’s leg . . .”

I have to walk away before more words fall on my sensitive ears.

*

Lian doesn’t seem to notice me when our eyes meet. I wave at her again with my umbrella before she leaves her girlfriend to skip over to my side.

“Dad, it’s not raining!”

I look up at the cloudy sky. “You’re right. For some reason I rushed off to have our umbrella fixed.”

She giggles and thrusts her arm into mine. “I got you to worry, didn’t I?”

I tug her arm to feel its soft weight. Wearing heeled pumps, she stands almost taller than I, but she’s light, shy of fifty kilos. I wonder if I might worry about her less if she were a little stronger. She’s grown twelve centimeters in her post–high jump years but has put on little weight. Peddlers gaze at us as we pass by their storefronts. Suddenly I feel proud of having my winsome daughter hanging on my arm and walking home with me.

She leans her head on my shoulder. “Dad, do you really think I’m smarter than my older sister?”

I pat the back of her hand. “You also have to see that she works harder than you, and she’s a very serious-minded girl.”

She peers at the noodle shop where I found her yesterday, with her mouth half open. “Oh.”

“She was a straight-A student, and so are you, of course. But she never wasted her time messing around. Instead, she studied English in her spare time and got into a U.S. college with a full scholarship. You should learn from her and adopt a long-term plan to secure a good future. As the old saying goes, she who throws a long line catches a big fish.”

Lian twists her body to pull her arm away. I touch her sleeve but don’t dare to grab hold of her. She’s a big girl now. Since her siblings have gone away, I have to admit I’ve been stricter with her than with my two older children. I can never admit to anyone that Lian is my favorite, though it seems right for me to make up for all my previous failings as a father while I still have a chance. She leaps ahead of me in a deer-like trot, her long hair flying behind her. I hope she hasn’t become an object of pursuit for young men—it’s too soon. She’s a mere child in an adult’s height. My worries are already a nuisance to her, and she prevents me from being overly protective. If she does care for him, she’ll find ways to outwit me and consummate the love affair. Rather than rebelling against me, it’ll be better if she learns a trick or two before she takes to proper courting.

*

“Fishing?” Lian asks and puffs out her cheeks like a goldfish. “Who can see me carrying a rod standing on the riverbank?”

“A hand line,” I correct her, “is what we’re going to use.” From behind the door I take out the new cane pole, at the tip of which hangs an eyed hook on the end of a nylon line. “Angling is a sport for young and old alike, so you mustn’t have prejudice against it.”

“I’m not prejudiced.” She runs her finger and thumb down the line to pinch the hook. “I just don’t have the patience for it.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Daughter.” I cast my line across the room to hook a doily on the arm of the sofa, when my wife enters the room.

“Aren’t you forgetting yourself, old man?” she scolds and unhooks the doily.

Lian and I burst into laughter.

“I haven’t fished ever since I became a dad. But, you see, it’s like riding a bike. You never forget the basics.”

“Fishing basics?” My wife chuckles.

I wink at her, and she falls silent. She knows I plan to spend time with Lian outdoors, not only for the sport’s sake.

“In order to catch a fish, you have to use your hands and arms, as well as your brain.” I pat my head. “It is a battle of wits between a fish and an angler, similar to any mind game between two people.”

My wife sits on the sofa.

“A lot of girls say they don’t care for fishing,” I tell them. “But in the village where I grew up, quite a few girls caught bigger fish than the boys did. Can you guess why?”

“They’re more patient?” Lian shrugs. “Not me, Dad.”

“When it comes to fishing, a boy is just as patient, until a big fish bites. Then he gets so excited that he starts fighting rough.” I pick up the hook and a little line to stretch them out before her eyes. “You see, the line may be strong enough, but a fish mouth isn’t, so the hook will pull out. A girl who can reel in with a gentle hand isn’t so likely to lose her catch.”

My wife gives me the thumbs-up.

Lian takes my pole to lay it flat on her lap, then plants it on the ground to see how tall it stands.

My wife raises the hand line onto Lian’s shoulder and strokes her hair. “Finish your homework early, so you can go fishing with Dad on Sunday.”

Lian turns her head to watch the hook dangle behind her back.

*

The wispy branches of a weeping willow brush the pond surface, half covered with lily pads and duckweed. My galoshes sink into mud that smells of grass root marinated with lake water.

“Don’t stomp on the bank.” I hush Lian beside me. “You’re scaring away the fish.”

She leaps up. “Where, where’re the fish?”

I pull her behind the stump of a fallen willow. “We’re going to split up,” I tell her. “I’d like to settle here for a little bit.”

Lian points her finger at the lake. “Look!” A red carp hops out of the lily pads and rolls in the air. “The carp jumped!” She claps her hands.

“What’re you doing?” I drag her twenty meters away from the pond to lecture her. “Don’t talk so loud. Fish can hear us. You already spooked the prize carp in the pond. Can you keep quiet so we don’t go home empty-handed?” She nods and sticks out her tongue. “One other thing, you shouldn’t stand so close to me, because when I pick a spot, I mark my territory.”

She blows the bangs off her forehead. “Dad, I thought you were going to teach me how to fish.”

“What do you think I just did?” I pat her shoulder. “Come on, you go first.”

She tiptoes to the stump and peers back at me for my approval. I nod at her and watch her drop the line in the water. For a beginner like her, one spot is as good as the other, since she has to rely on her luck to lure the fish to bite. All I want is peace between us when she stays away from Kai.

Carp like to dig up plants and nibble on their roots, stirring up the bottom silt. I pace the bank to find clouds of mud with bubbles erupting on the surface, then squat down to cast my line. Beneath the green, weedy water, I imagine my fish soup simmering in the pond, which is shaped like a giant caldron.

*

I watch my bobber dance up and down on the water surface. A fish has been nibbling the bait for a while and finally pulls the bobber under, when I strike! The line rips out of the water without the hook at the end.

“Darn it!” I mutter under my breath, and stoop to comb the grass for the missing hook.

Lian studies my face as I walk toward her, ignoring her hand line as it sinks under the weeds. I cup my hands around my mouth to shout to her, “Strike! The fish is biting!” She lifts the pole to fling it back. Nothing. Luckily, the hook remains on the end of the line.

“It took the bait.” She scrapes off the sticky paste to put on a new dough ball.

“Make sure the tip of your hook doesn’t show.” I squeeze her dough ball into a narrow strip. “A carp is a very cunning fish. It likes to mouth a piece of food a dozen times, spitting it out each time, before it makes up its mind to swallow it.”

She rubs her hand and forearm. “My wrist is sore.”

I feel the heat of sunshine in my hair. It’s a perfect day for carp and other bottom dwellers to sunbathe in the shallow water. “You can either continue to fish or carry the umbrella over both our heads. Your mom will snap at me if I let you get sunburned.”

She squints at me. “What’re you doing here, Dad?”

“I lost my hook.” I ignore her gleeful titter. “Next time I’ll remember to bring a couple of spares.”

She picks up the handle of the oilcloth umbrella. “Until then, Dad, open the canopy for us.”

*

The sun is going down behind the woods on the other side of the riverbank and making the water shimmer like brittle glass. The chattering of magpies rattles the air, while paired swallows glide across the pond to catch dragonflies. Perhaps they’re busy feeding their young.

Lian whips her pole back through the slender willow leaves, with a silver fish wagging its tail at the end of her line. “I caught a fish!” she squeals. “I caught it!”

I’m afraid of ripping the grass carp’s jaw as I try to take out the hook. Then I put my finger on its bloody mouth. “This will calm a carp down, even after a brutal fight.”

“We’re going to have fish soup tonight!” She leaps up and down as if she had springs under her soles.

I pinch its limp body to drop it in the pail. “It’s too tiny and bony.” I wipe my slimy fingers on the grass, stand up to close the umbrella and gather our tackle. “You may have an easier time if Mom pan-fries it.”

“The soup will be a little thin, but each of us will have a sip.” She dumps the remaining dough balls into the river and coos, “Hurry up and feed, fish, while you still can!”

I watch her cup her hands together, scoop up river water into the pail, and throw in a piece of duckweed. “Who’s gotten hooked here, you or the carp?” I ask.

She slides the hand line onto her shoulder. “We’re coming back next Sunday, right, Dad?”

I pat her on the head. “You’re a fast learner, obliging me to do it with a sip of your fish soup.”

She giggles. “Bribe accepted.”

We then march home, two victorious anglers.

*

Next Sunday is cloudy, so I prepare extra line and hooks for our fishing trip.

“Grass carp will be hiding at the bottom of the river today,” I tell Lian. “We ought to throw a long line to catch a big fish.”

“Enough bluffing already.” My wife hands me the oilcloth umbrella. “You two bring me that red carp home tonight, all right?”

“You bet, Mom.” Lian elbows me.

 

I can never admit to anyone that Lian is my favorite, though it seems right for me to make up for all my previous failings as a father while I still have a chance.”

 

As soon as we’re outside, I feel a cool raindrop on my brow. Trotting ahead of me, Lian ascends the ramp and sways her narrow hips a bit. She’s been talking about carp the whole week, so I don’t mention the rain and dampen her spirit. We remain silent until we reach the lake. I glimpse a tall figure standing by the willow stump where we fished last week. Facing away from us, he wears a raincoat and brimmed hat.

I stop to tell Lian, “Looks like our spot is taken.”

“I’ll go elsewhere,” Lian says.

The man turns his face, and Lian waves at him. It’s Kai Shi, the PE teacher. If he’s here to ruin our good time, I won’t let him. Our eyes meet briefly, before I pull away to watch Lian drop her line in the water. Then I drag myself to address Kai.

“How’s your catch?” I whisper.

He points at the pail on the ground. “Carp and such.”

His rod is balanced perfectly in the strong hand with which he threw the javelin across three-quarters of the playground.

“How did you find this place?” I ask him in a strained low voice.

“I’ve been fishing here for four years. It’s the first time I’ve seen you two.” He glances at me. “It’s real nice in summer. I met my girlfriend here.”

“Oh.” I try not to raise my voice. “You have a girlfriend.”

“Had.” He rips the line from the water to lean the rod against the tree. “Do you care for a cigarette?”

“Okay.” I take his Peony, sniff it, then put it in my mouth.

He strikes a match to light both our cigarettes. “It may be my last time to fish here. I’ve found a job in my hometown. I will leave as soon as I get my diploma.”

I peer at Lian to see if she might have overheard us. She stands erect and stares at the bobber. Her lips are pouting, and she has a slight double chin. I take a long pull on my cigarette, feeling heated tobacco smoke fill my lungs.

“I should apologize to you then.” I rack my brain for the polite words. “For having so rashly accused you of pursuing my daughter.”

“It’s not your fault.” He blows some broken rings. “I was feeling awfully lonely when I first met Lian, and she was always giggling. I admit I wished for a piece of her light heart. It’s immoral because I am her teacher.”

I stub out my Peony and wipe my mouth. Words cannot describe how glad I am he’s going away.

“I take her fishing because it gives her something to do with her hands,” I finally tell him.

“It’s a good hobby.” He picks up the rod to return to fishing.

Light drizzle needles the smooth surface of the water. I stare at my bobber and wonder if I need an extra sinker to anchor my hook more steadily, when the water splashes as if someone has dived into the pond. Kai pulls his rod vertical and fiercely reels in his line. The noise drowns out my murmur “Gently.”

He yells, “Come on, boy,” and sways from side to side to keep up with the quick darting run at the end of his line, which gets tangled up with some lily pads.

A moment later he reels in the rest of his line along with the empty hook.

“Did you see that carp?” he shouts. “It must’ve been five kilos!”

Lian drops her hand line. I follow her to go over and check Kai’s hook. It’s sharp and bloodless.

“You should’ve fought it a little gentler,” I tell him. “Its mouth can’t take your full wrist strength.”

“I can’t help it.” He flexes his hands. “A carp fight makes my blood boil.”

Lian pinches the hook and pulls the line with her thumb and finger. “Is it a red carp?” she asks with a blush.

“No, it’s silver.” Kai fixes his eyes on her. “Why, are you after a red one?” She nods with a grin. “Tell you what, I’ll let you try my rod and see if you can do better with a reel.” He squats down to teach her reeling. “When you get a strike, just reel it in, and don’t give it any slack!”

“Do it gently,” I add. “Does your line reach the lake bottom?”

“Not quite. It’s carp-spawning season, so they’re feeding everywhere and come to the shallows all the time.” He baits the hook for Lian. “Honey-scented dough ball is a carp’s favorite. I bet your dad didn’t give you that.” He stands up and dusts his hands. “You all set? I’m going to take a break.”

I wait for Lian to settle in, then follow Kai to the top of the bank, where he sits in the wet grass. I pass him a pack of Marlboros, from which he picks out a cigarette. The drizzle has grown denser, and I light our cigarettes after a few attempts.

“Carp are feeding and spawning in this rain.” He flicks off the ash. “What an exciting day for fishing!” He can hardly suppress a smile. How young he looks with his bushy eyebrows and smooth forehead!

“So, did you find a satisfactory job?” I eye my umbrella lying in the grass down the bank.

“A high school with a pilot program for physical education.” He rubs his soles on the grass and bends his knees to fold his long legs in front of his chest. “My ex-girlfriend wanted me to teach at the community college here, which has PE classes only as an elective, but I want to be a real teacher, you know, a leader of a group of children.”

I gaze at Lian, who stands holding the rod and seems blissfully forgetful of the young man who lent it to her. She’s still a child, and will be for a while longer. Thank goodness.

“It’s sort of like being a parent.”

Before I know it, my hand reaches out to pat his knee. Then I look into his eyes for the first time, taking in his black irises and clear, spotless whites.

“I’ll remember that, Professor Chen.” His long lashes tremble when a raindrop splatters on his cheek.

“Excuse me, I have to go back to my daughter, or she’ll get wet.”

Kai nods at me with a boyish smile.

I walk quietly toward Lian. When she turns to me and presses a finger on her mouth, I stretch out my arm to bring the umbrella over her head.

*

I notice the rod slanting in Lian’s hand. She stumbles forward, out from under my umbrella. The duckweeds have swallowed her bobbers. I grab hold of her rod and shout, “Strike!”

“I know.” Lian reels in the line while being pulled left and right.

Kai runs to our help and yells, “Jerk your rod to hook it up!” Lian flicks her wrist. “Don’t give it any slack!” Kai grips the rod to keep it steady and vertical. The fish, now in the shallow, thrashes about the lily pads and sprays a wave of white water.

“Dad, it’s pulling me down,” Lian screams.

“It’s okay. You keep reeling and let us take care of the rod.”

Kai’s and my hands hold the rod firmly back, while Lian continues to reel.

Just before the fish is lifted off the water, Kai says, “Now flip it over,” and yanks the rod, and we swing the fish onshore. The hook pulls out of the fish’s mouth in midair. Lian skips over to press the writhing carp against the wet grass, and puts her finger on its mouth until it quiets down. Its silver scales glisten like armor.

“I thought I was getting pulled under.” Lian peers up at us, panting.

“This boy weighs about three kilos.” Kai crouches down to have a closer look. “A healthy carp rockets off like a torpedo.”

Thunder breaks out in the near distance. I pick up the umbrella to hold it above our heads.

“The carp will be enough for the four of us.” Lian’s eyes are bright and happy as if brimming over with rainwater. “Can Mr. Shi come have dinner with us, Dad?”

At least my daughter knows how to thank her helper.

“Let’s hurry.” I lift my umbrella higher when Kai stands up. “Off to home we go.”

“It’s okay, Professor Chen. I’m wearing my raincoat.” He steps aside to let Lian take the space next to me. “Believe it or not, it’s the first time I’ve helped to catch a fish big enough to feed a family.”

“I believe you.” I pat his wet sleeve. “And you’ll appreciate it even more when you taste it.”

Lian carries the pail and swings it a bit, while we gather our tackle. “We threw a short line and caught a big fish, didn’t we, Dad?”

“Not without Mr. Shi’s help.”

“Of course.”

“It takes a kinder person to lend you a rod than give you a fish.” Kai walks ahead, so I’m not sure if he’s heard us. “As the old saying goes, a teacher for a day is a father for a lifetime,” I tell Lian loudly.

Kai waves his hand with his back to us, and Lian smiles. Just before crossing the road, he reaches out to the willow branches and runs his fingers through them as if combing soft green hair.

__________________________________

From My Old Faithful. Used with permission of University of Massachusetts Press. Copyright © 2018 by Yang Huang.




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