First Swim

I could not tell whether it had been one hour or five since we left the Bronx. I knew only that it was cramped and hot, and that I needed to get off the bus and into the open air.  The reflection of Siusuk’s[1] gap-toothed grin in the bus window blurred my view of the New Jersey farms gliding past.  His optimism was boundless and uncontrolled.  Not even my frown could shake my uncle’s superstitious belief that a peacock and a necklace would help us to find Bonanza on a cow farm in Cranbury, New Jersey. 

“Little Joe?  We are close?” Siusuk jammed a cigarette-yellowed finger against the bus window.  I was disappointed to find that the crumbling wood buildings and overgrown pastures he pointed to were nothing like Bonanza’s famous, one-thousand acre Ponderosa Ranch.  The sun mixed with sweat on Siusuk’s forehead, which always looked exceptionally big after the haircuts he gave himself by placing a soup bowl on his head and cutting around it. 

“Little Joe and Cochise will find Bonanza?” my uncle asked.  The glare on his forehead was so bright that I had to squint to look at him. 

“I don’t know,” I said in a low whisper, not wanting the other passengers to hear me respond to the name, Little Joe. 

Little Joe was the first English words Siusuk learned after he emigrated from Shanghai.  In fact, he learned most of his English from Bonanza. I think that he identified with the television character because, like my uncle, Little Joe was the youngest and smallest of three brothers. He was also the wildest.  Siusuk claimed that, if given the opportunity, he’d be able to ride a horse as grand as Cochise even though he’d never even been up close to one before.  Little Joe was the real star, Siusuk always used to say, but he called me Little Joe because he felt that Cochise was truly the bravest.  He said that although the horse could not speak English, it always knew when Little Joe was in danger and always saved him. 

In addition to his “soup bowl special,” my uncle had watched countless midnight reruns of Bonanza and practiced his English in front of the bathroom mirror to prepare for our start-of-summer trip to New Jersey. 

 “’Hey, Little Joe, do you know the difference between a table and an ottoman?’” he’d asked his reflection.  I sensed that he was proud of his use of the word ottoman by how loudly he said it, but I doubted he even knew what an ottoman was.  At bedtime, Siusuk incorporated lines from the famous television show into his prayers, “‘Let’s go back to the Ponderosa, Pa’ and lay me down to sleep. Amen.” I prayed that he would realize how stupid he sounded.  

My parents never corrected Siusuk’s English, even when he helped out at their laundry where I worked on weekends.

“You take these now?” my uncle would ask as he handed a customer their clothes.   I didn’t understand why he dropped half of the words out of his sentences, almost as if he was in a race to see who could finish speaking first.  Or why he turned every statement into a question when he spoke English. “This payment?” he asked when he took a customer’s money.  Some customers actually thought that Siusuk was asking a question, and they tried to help him by doing things like counting aloud the exact amount of change, and speaking real slow while pointing to numbers on the laundry ticket.

“This…is…five…fifty,” they’d say. 

“This…five…fifty?” my uncle repeated obediently, like one of the slow kids that sat at the back of my class with special tutors.  The customers’ politeness encouraged Siusuk to continue to narrate his life as an endless string of questions.  I secretly wished that they would laugh at him.

 

“You see this blue?  The sky here is a perfect match,” Siusuk said in Cantonese as he held Grandmother’s jade necklace up to the bus window.

“Match to what?”  I was annoyed because he dangled the necklace so closely to my face that it brushed my nose as it swung back and forth. 

“The blue,” he said again.  “It is a very important omen.”  I worked hard to keep my expression level but secretly marveled when he told me that the jade, even after thirty years, was still as brilliantly blue as when his mother had worn it before she died.  When he stuck the pendant into his mouth, I knew that this was where he wanted to get off the bus.  I wondered if something special in Siusuk’s saliva helped to preserve the color. 

 

We watched the bus get smaller and smaller, until all we could see was the cloud of dust in its wake.  “To keep safe,” my uncle said, and patted the place on his chest where the pendant was now hidden.   Siusuk studied my face intently, then lowered his voice to a top-secret whisper and said, “Little Joe,” and then in Cantonese, “if a peacock on this cow farm shows you its feathers, tell me and I will buy a lucky lottery ticket.”   I frowned at the dead grass that carpeted the side of the road to avoid his gaze.  It irritated me that he thought peacocks lived on cow farms.

A grizzled fence, which looked like it’d been chewed up by beavers, lined the deserted country road we walked along.  Wood posts leaned tiredly on one another; no longer able to stand the extra weight in the summer heat, they had shrugged off most of the barbed wire.  Suisuk kept glancing down at his wooden muji sandals. 

“Where is clip-clop?” he asked.

“I can hear it,” I lied.  “If you’re quiet, you’ll hear it too.”  But really, the dirt-scabbed grass muffled the much anticipated clip-clop noise Siusuk hoped to make with his soles, which were carved from a single piece of chinaberry into shapes that resembled small wooden stools.  They were hand-painted by my uncle with images of blue, good luck peacocks.  My uncle, who ritualistically tapped each fence post that he passed, finally found an opening where the barbed wire had completely rusted away. 

Suisuk tried his wobbly best to keep up with me in his cumbersome sandals as we hiked through the grass, which was spotty and muddy where the cows had been.  I sped ahead, not wanting to hear anymore of my uncle’s whistling, which he did involuntarily through the gap in his teeth when he was out of breath.  In the brief second it took for me to look back to see how far behind I had left him, my foot landed in a pile of cow poop.  I howled until Siusuk caught up to me. 

 “Maybe I not?” Siusuk hesitated.  He stood, poised with a stick gripped high overhead, much like a statue of a man and his fly swatter.  “It good luck.  Maybe we leave it?”   

“I don’t care about lucky poop.  Just take the mess off,” I said, and stuck my foot straight out at him, my rubber-capped toe pointed to the sky.  Siusuk sucked on his necklace while he studied the fat, brown waffle embedded under my sneaker.  “Never mind,” I huffed when I got tired of holding my leg up.  “It stinks, you know.”  I took off at full-speed across the pasture, but the thick poop-waffle gave me a lopsided gait and I had to concentrate so that I wouldn’t fall.

I ignored my uncle’s pleadings for me to slow down, and instead thought about his peculiar belief in good luck charms and pigment voodoo that began many years before I was born. My father liked to tell me how Siusuk had draped pillow cases over all the framed photos of their mother when she died, to ensure that her spirit did not get trapped behind the glass.  When my father tried to take them down after the funeral, young Siusuk screamed for three days.  It reminded me of the time my uncle slapped a pocketknife out of my hand when he came to pick me up on the last day of fifth grade. 

“This is probably how your Grandmother’s life was cut short,” he’d said hysterically in Cantonese, while making frantic stabbing gestures in the air around his neck with his fingers.  I remember how hard I stared at his jade necklace to keep from crying in front of my friends.  I thought of his damn pillowcases.  Then I thought of how much I wished that I could stuff Siusuk’s head inside one of them. 

 

The cow pond at the far side of the pasture looked like the perfect place to clean off my shoe.  I tight-roped a crude wood beam that straddled the banks and, after I’d reached the center, crouched down to dunk my shoe.  Two ancient catfish circled my water-shadow as I watched Siusuk tiptoe through the pasture; the heat transformed my uncle’s figure into a wavy blue splotch against the pulsating green.  “Hurry up!” I hollered, just as the beam snapped.  I did not know how to swim, so I flailed around until I realized that the water, which only reached my chin, was cool and felt kind of great.  My enjoyment was cut short when the catfish aimed their flat noses at my legs and charged with their poisonous whiskers.  I tried to kick my scaly attackers but my foot moved so slowly underwater, like I was in a slow-motion action scene in a martial arts movie.  “Get off!  Get off!” I screamed as they closed in on me.

“Is okay?” Siusuk had appeared, he was winded and sopping with sweat.

“Duh!  What do you think?” I responded, but immediately regretted my sarcasm when I noticed that Siusuk’s feet were torn and bleeding; he had taken off his good luck sandals to race across the pasture to save me.  He grabbed a jagged piece of the beam and smacked the water around my head to scare off the rancorous fish, but not before he had rapped the wood nine times with his knuckles.  Siusuk plunged into the water and pulled me out without getting stung once.  

 

I’d seen my uncle knock things with his knuckles for luck at least a billion times.  “Nine is the most powerful number there is,” I remember he said on my first day of sixth grade.  Every morning, Siusuk rapped my textbooks nine times to bring me good grades.  Years later, Siusuk’s superstitions followed me to my high school where he insisted on walking me each morning because my parents were already busy at the laundry.  After I was safe inside the schoolyard, Siusuk circled the block nine times by himself.  I think that it was his way of building an invisible shield around my school.  Before the first bell had rung, my uncle finished his final lap and would toss a fistful of uncooked rice through the school’s chain-link fence while all my classmates looked on. 

“Please stop,” I begged each time.

“But your lunchtime rice will become hard and sticky,” he said in Cantonese.  He did this even when I packed a sandwich.

 

The sun had seared my catfish welts into hard, red blisters by the time we reached the woods.  I was busy picking at my fresh scabs when Siusuk discovered the enormous pawpaw tree, which he recognized by its distinctive papaya-shaped fruit that he liked to buy in Chinatown.  I stopped in my tracks when he pointed it out to me.

“You want one?” Siusuk asked.  Want did not describe my desperate, violent need to climb that tree, to do something simple and get it right.  My uncle made a move towards the tree, but I pushed past him and clawed my way up the trunk.  Once in the leafy upper canopy, I clamped my thighs around a slender, gray branch and slithered out towards the end.  I reached for the largest pawpaw that I could see, but the welts on my legs rubbed against the bark, and burned so much that my eyes watered.  I loosened my painful grip around the branch, and stretched forward towards the waxy yellow fruit. 

“You found fruit?” my uncle suddenly shouted from below. 

“No,” I said, impatiently.  “Stop rushing me.  I’ve almost got it.”  The pawpaw was just inches from my fingertips when I lost my balance and fell ten feet, hitting branches and sharp twigs on my way down.  I rolled off the trail and into a mound of dead leaves which stuck to the blood leaking out of my elbows and forearms.  My breath was knocked clear out.  Siusuk ran to where I lay, shook his head sadly and sucked on his necklace.  I wanted to hit him. 

“Why do you even wear that stupid thing?”  I said once I got my breath back, and slapped away my uncle’s proffered hand.  At first it made me feel really good.  I hated Siusuk’s shiny forehead, his gapped smile, his superstitions, the way he hovered over me and flaunted his necklace.  I lifted up my head a little so that I could glare at him.

“You want I help you?” He stuck his hand out again.

“Just get away from me” I said.  “I can take care of myself.” 

Siusuk’s stunned silence emboldened me and my voice rose to a whiny pitch.  “How can you believe in any of this crap when your most powerful lucky charm couldn’t even keep your mother alive?” then winced as I propped myself up on bloodied elbows to prepare for the attack.  I made a grab for his necklace.  Siusuk pulled away, covered his ears, and began to rock on his heels. 

“Why I help?” he said finally, staring out at the forest.  “Why?” he repeated a little softer.

“Yeah, why do you even bother?  You haven’t done anything to help me,” I said.

“She is lost?” he said.  “I not to lose you.” 

“Forget it,” I said.  “You don’t even know what you’re saying, do you?” then slumped back down and stared up at the pawpaw tree whose leaves were completely still, almost as if it was holding its breath.  Even the fruit, which I could see clearly from where I lay, looked like a hundred sad, yellow spider eyes.  I wondered what they thought of me. 

 

It was a long time before either of us moved.  The sun, which was hard and orange and blistering hot, had slid behind the pawpaw tree so the leaves glowed like neon.  Too tired to think about where we were headed, we trudged downhill.  I scanned the side of Siusuk’s face, looking for evidence that he hated me.  His cheeks were flushed, his forehead dripped sweat, and I am certain that the puffiness around his eyes was from crying.  If my uncle had scolded me or at least frowned, it would have made me feel better.  I knew that I deserved it. 

The deep wrinkles bunched up on Siusuk’s forehead reminded me of a funny saying about a person who runs from sadness: You cannot leave your shadow behind.  This used to make me laugh when I was little, especially when I played shadow-tag with my friends, and we would chase each other’s shadows and try to stomp on them.  But now I understood; the longer Siusuk ran from his grief and fears, the smarter and blacker his shadow became.  So when he tried to push the darkness away, it slithered through his fingers like water or air.

 

Siusuk was first to break the silence when we reached a small sandy lake at the trail’s end.

 “Little Joe, wait.  I show you to swim,” he said softly, almost timid, and not as his usual question.   I smiled at him--not too big of a smile to make me look fake, but enough to show him my relief--and Siusuk nervously smiled back.  This was the first smile that we had shared all day, one that wasn’t weighted with sarcasm or conceit on my part.  The realization left me feeling even more miserable and, in spite of the heat, I shivered as I stripped down to my boxers. 

Suisuk and I threw our clothes into a pile and splashed into the lake.  My welts and elbow gashes burned at first, but the pain disappeared the moment I heard Siusuk ask, “Okay? Swim now?”  I followed his example and lay on my belly in the shallows of the warm watery sand.  I put my face in, and paddled and kicked as hard as I could.   “Little Joe? Little Joe? You can hear me?” my uncle hollered.  “This is you swimming!”  I paddled and kicked even more vigorously--every inch of my body was sore.  When one of my hands brushed against my sneakers on the beach, I rolled onto my side and whooped in disbelief.  The late afternoon sun turned my uncle’s forehead into a dazzling pink-red disco ball, which bobbled up and down as he laughed, and there was sand stuck in his tooth gap.  We both wore sand-suits, but Siusuk’s vivid blue necklace made his look especially regal that day. 

My uncle was already dressed before I finished picking the last bits of sand out of my welts, which were swollen with lake water.  He was not smiling, and seemed to have lost something because he shaded his eyes with one hand and scanned the beach like a cowboy searching the horizon.  When he saw that I was watching him, he quickly dropped his hand and stared quietly at his mujis.  Even his shadow seemed afraid to breathe, in case I might see.  I pretended to struggle with a knot in my shoelace.  When he thought that I wasn’t looking, he scanned the beach once more, but this time more stealthily.  Slowly, without turning his body too much, he combed the entire beach with his eyes. 

I did not ask Siusuk what he was searching for, or to forgive me for the horrible things that I had said.  I did not say anything.  But for many nights afterward, I dreamed that he was looking for his lucky lottery-winning peacock.  I dreamed that my uncle, the true Chinese cowboy, had found his Bonanza on that warm, sandy beach in Cranbury, New Jersey.



[1] Pronounced SÜ\sʊk\   (or “sue-sook”): translates as Youngest Uncle in Cantonese


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