Vanni Thach

 
 

THE PENNY JAR

 

Mom says I would only be at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s for the night. If she had her way, she would leave me here for good. She tells me she’s trying to teach me a lesson, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to learn. I had stood up to my younger brother’s bully, but she hadn’t thanked me when I had returned home. Instead, she had kept saying over and over again that education is important. When she had told me that the first time, I thought, not more important than my brother.

I’m thinking this and wondering how long I’ve been sitting on the front steps, staring at the empty field across the street where broken bottles and abandoned houses lie scattered like ruins. Bored, I get up and walk to the backyard. I break off a string bean dangling from the gate. After eating off one end, I pick up a branch and search the ground for pennies. Two years ago, I had heard Mom and Dad fighting about money. I had started looking for pennies and saving them to make a wish. Last year, I had filled my first jar. I had wished for them to stop arguing. And they did.

I’m not sure yet what I would wish for this time. But, with nothing to do, I keep my eyes out for them when a peach tree in the backyard catches my attention. I climb onto a curved branch, which dips like a hammock. From there, I could see into the neighbor’s second-floor bedroom. The bedroom is pink—not the kind of pink my older sister likes, but pink, pink. Pink curtains. Pink sheets. Pink pillows. A pink piggy bank on a drawer where a brown teddy bear with pink hearts sits. A lot of pink.

Just then a car—not pink—pulls up the neighbor’s driveway. It parks and the neighbor with the blonde hair gets out. Grandpa stops watering his plants to say hello, but the neighbor says nothing and hurries inside the house.

The neighbor walks across the kitchen window and goes upstairs to the pink room. He sits on the edge of the bed, picks up a pillow, and brings it to his face. He takes off his white coat, his clothes—all of them except for his underwear. As I watch him, a weird feeling comes over me, like the moment when a man on the television leans his head toward a woman’s and the television screen goes black. The first time it had happened, Grandma said, “Go outside.” “There’s something wrong with the tele . . .” “Go outside.” I still don’t know what I did or was about to see, but whatever it was felt wrong and dirty.

Because of this feeling, I was leaning forward—curious. I lose my balance, grab a nearby branch, and drop myself down. Though I want to climb back up, Grandma calls me.

Grandma holds sheets and pillowcases in her arms. She and I clean the rooms upstairs which used to belong to my aunt and uncles who now live across the country. We replace sheets on the beds and pillowcases on the pillows. After, we go through my aunt’s closet and fold her clothes into two piles—one for donation, one for me.

“Can you fit this?” Grandma says, holding up a yellow sundress.

“Grandma,” I say. “I don’t like dresses.”

“When I was your age, I loved them, but they were expensive.”

Though I don’t always understand what’s expensive and what’s not, I know that when she says it—the word expensive—the thing she wants always feels so far away.

I hand her the dress. “Then you have it.”

Grandma laughs. She turns toward the window. “What were you looking at on the tree?”

My aunt’s room faces the neighbor’s house. From the window, I can see into the neighbor’s yard and, if the shades were still up, the pink bedroom.

“Nothing really.”

I go back into the closet, drag out large boxes, and pull off spider webs from the tops. “Shoes,” I say and push the box toward the donation pile. “And books.” I go through the books and pick up a marble notebook with the words “do not read” written on the bottom. I flip through it and see writing about the neighbor: “Nothing good ever comes from a lonely, white man.” I tossed it onto my pile.

“Grandma, is there a girl who lives in that house?” I ask, pointing out the window.

“I’ve never seen one. Why do you ask?”

“It’s boring here.”

Grandma smiles. “Mind your own.” She gets up and grabs the laundry.

 

Outside, Grandpa is still watering his garden. Dad says Grandpa is from a different country and in his country he used to plant a lot of fruits and vegetables. Even though Grandpa is no longer in his country, he still plants a lot of fruits and vegetables. He spends a lot of time watering them too.  

Grandpa hands me the hose as if knowing I would ask for it. He tells me to water the squashes, mints, and peppers while he picks ripe fruits and vegetables to freeze for when it gets cold. I start by spraying the mint in a square shape and going over it three times. Then I move to wetting the roots of the pear, peach, and apple trees in a circle shape and finish with drawing a triangle over the peppers and squashes. Then I toss water into the sky to try and catch a glimpse of a rainbow.

“Stop wasting water,” Grandpa says, turning off the faucet. “Grab the cutting board.”

While Grandpa cuts vegetables, he asks me about the fight. I tell him a bully was picking on my brother, and I had had it, so when the boy called me a bitch for shoving him in the hallway, I clenched my fist, closed my eyes, and punched him in the face. But the boy moved, so instead of his nose, I cut his lip. After that everything was a blur.

“You’re a girl. You shouldn’t be fighting.”

I shrug, not knowing how being a girl had anything to do with the fight.

“Your mother had to close the shop early to go and pick you up.”

“So?” I say, feeling a tightness in my chest.   

Grandpa stops. “That’s a day’s worth of work.” He glares at me. “You get a free education and you’re wasting it fighting people.”

“It’s free for everyone,” I mumble.

“Everyone . . . ,” he says, shaking his head. “Your mother never finished school.”

My cheeks are hot. “Why?”

He looks around the yard. “We’re poor.”  

Poor isn’t a word I understand either, but when Grandpa says it—his eyes staring into mine, the word curled on his lips like it’s the worst thing to be—a knot grows in my throat too big for me to swallow. I choke.

***

Mom calls and tells me I should sleep over one more day to figure out why I was suspended. I want to tell her that I already know why, but she doesn’t want to hear it, so I keep quiet until she hangs up.

By now, I have given up on finding pennies in the yard and decide to read my aunt’s journal. My aunt, when she was still living here, thought the new neighbor, who had moved in five years ago, was “peculiar”—a word I have to look up in the dictionary. I learn that the neighbor is the only white person living in the city or at least in this part of the neighborhood and that across the street weeds and grasses grew so high drug dealers used to hide in them. One had even caught her with a boy and yelled for them to leave, “You could’ve been killed.”

I look up at the empty field, imagining the overgrowth, drug dealers, and my aunt with a boy when the neighbor’s car pulls in the driveway. He gets out and opens the back door. A girl my age, also with blonde hair, steps out in a pink dress with pink matching shoes. Though she’s pretty, she looks angry.

“I want to go home,” the girl says.

“You are home,” the neighbor says, grabbing his white coat and a pink backpack from the backseat. He slams the car door, unlocks the front porch, and pulls the girl inside the house. Moments later, he leaves through the front, still in his red tie, white dress shirt, and khaki pants, and drives off.

The house is quiet. The lights are off. Nothing moves.

 

Grandma peeks her head from behind the porch door. “Help me fold the laundry.”

Around back, Grandma and I shake dust and pollen off the sheets, pillowcases, and comforters. She takes the laundry basket inside and brings out a tilapia for me to prepare.

I pick up the yellow, green, and silver scale fish and bring its gaping mouth to eye level. “But you got caught,” I whisper. As I try to gut it, it writhes and wriggles as if trying to swim on land. The fin pokes my thumb and pierces my skin. As the cleaver rips the scales off its body, my blood and the fish’s mix, producing a strong metallic smell which clings to my skin even after washing.  

Grandma cuts the tilapia into three parts. She bathes the pieces in melted sugar and roasted garlic. “Stop fighting and learn to cook. It’ll help you get a husband.”

I wonder how learning to cook a fish will help me get a husband, but I don’t ask. Instead, I wonder why it isn’t enough that I learn to cook so I don’t starve.

“What if I don’t want a husband?”

“All girls want a husband.”

“I don’t want a husband.”

“Not yet.”

I’m sure I don’t want a husband, but hearing her say not yet makes me feel like I don’t know what I want. I think she might be right, so I wait for the fish to be done and, while we eat lunch, I look toward the front door and wait for the doorbell to ring.

 

After lunch, I chomp on a slice of watermelon and spit out the seeds onto raised beds. I throw the rind in the compost bin and, with sticky fingers, climb the peach tree. Settling into the crook of a branch, I see the neighbor’s second-floor blinds roll up like an accordion. The window opens. The girl’s hands appear on the roof, as though she’s about to crawl out.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Sitting in a tree,” I say.  

The girl closes the window. A few minutes later she appears at the back door. She walks up to the gate and looks at the garden. Unlike Grandpa’s garden, the neighbor’s yard is empty. Brown, wilted grass grows in patches. Chipped blue paint litters the ground, leaving white, bald spots on the house, and tools left outside stained with rust like rotten teeth.

The girl picks a string bean. She eats it and spits it out.  “Why are you in the tree?”

I shrug, wondering why no one had seen her before.

The girl looks at the street. “Want to come over?”

I glance at the driveway.

“He’s at the hospital. He won’t be home until later.” She whacks the string bean against the gate, snapping it into pieces. “You look bored. I have candy if you’re not too scared to come over.”

On hearing the word scared, I tap my foot against the tree trunk, fingers itching from the challenge. Then I blow air out the side of my mouth, climb down the tree, and walk out the gate.

 

The girl takes me through the kitchen, where the sound of a leaking faucet follows us to a bedroom. Like an empty canvas, the walls have no decorations or pictures. A bed sits across the room. Beside it, there’s an open suitcase with a stethoscope and eyeglass case inside.  

“He wears glasses?” I ask with my ears tuned to sounds from outside.

“Contacts. He can’t sleep in them though.”

“What color are his eyes?”

“Green,” the girl says, and turns to face me. “Like mine.”

The girl then goes upstairs. She opens the door to her room, which looks the same from the tree, except it’s messier because there are his and her clothes on the floor. She opens a drawer and waves me over. The drawer is full of candy.

“Take whatever you want,” the girl says, sitting on her bed.

I take a watermelon flavored lollipop and look out the window. “I saw him in this room.”

“He sleeps here sometimes,” the girl says, moving a teddy bear off her bed. “It’s not my room anyway. I live with mom.”

“Why?”

“They’re divorced. They don’t live together.”

“Why?” I ask, looking into my grandparent’s yard.

“Why what?”

“Why are they divorced?”

“My mom says he’s a pig,” the girl says, looking at me. “Not a real pig, stupid.”

Before I could ask her “What type of pig?” a car pulls up the driveway. She yanks me toward the door, shoving me down the stairs. “Go out back. Don’t let him see you.”

My palm slides on the banister. At the bottom, I race through the kitchen, tripping over myself and thinking of my mother’s face in the principal’s office. I slip out the backdoor. Pressed against the side of the house, I wait for the neighbor to slam the car door shut. The front door closes and the tremors make me jump. Moving along the driveway, I reach the sidewalk and gasp for air as if I’ve become a fish out of water.

***

Two weeks later, Mom drops me off at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s so I can help clean their basement—at least that’s what she tells me. But I think it’s because I got into an argument with my brother. Mom always tells me he’s thoughtful, like my older sister. That means he thinks about things before acting. I guess if I thought about what a headache it would be to stand up for him, I wouldn’t have done it either. But I didn’t think, so I’m in the basement carrying out chairs and trying not to look too much at the neighbor’s house just in case the neighbor comes out and catches me.

Grandpa coils the garden hose in a crate. He stands with his hands on his waist. “What?”

Caught, I tilt my head toward the neighbor’s house. “The girl.”

“The neighbor’s daughter?”

“It’s his daughter?” I wonder how she could still be his daughter after a divorce. 

He laughs. “Who else would she be?”

I shrug. “Did you know he wears glasses?”

“How do you know?”

“I saw him,” I lie. “Grandpa . . . have you ever slept in auntie’s bed?”

“No,” he says, stopping to stare at me, then the neighbor’s house. “Why?”

“Nothing. Just wondering.”

 

I spend the afternoon dusting off furniture, wondering why the neighbor is living in the house next door and why his house doesn’t feel like a home. After unwinding the hose, I spray dust and dirt off metal chairs. An acorn flies past my ear and hits the ground by my foot. I turn around. There, on the neighbor’s roof, right above the bedroom window, the girl lounges as though sunbathing on the roof.

“Come over.”

I check to make sure no one is in earshot and spray her with the hose.

 “Stop! I’m going to fall.”

“I know.” I turn off the water. “I don’t want to die either.”

“You’re not going to die. The backdoor is open.”

I shake my head and continue to wash the chairs, now less focused than before. When done, I lean them against the side of the house. Through the window, I hear my grandparents watching news from their country. I wipe my hand on my shirt, look over at the neighbor’s house, and tell myself, “It’ll be quick.”

The girl’s dress sticks out from the alley on the other side of the driveway. She turns around and points a stick at me. “Took you long enough.”

“What are you doing?” I ask, curious and excited.

“Come see.”

By the side of the house, a yellow cat lies on its side with its green eyes open. Flies buzz around its small purple tongue and blood-soaked fur. Bits and pieces of its smashed brain, like raspberry jam, spread onto the grass and concrete. Next to it is a bowl of milk.

“Stay here,” the girl says and runs inside. She comes back with cooking oil and a lighter.  

“Wait. Wait.” My voice sounds shrill. “What are you doing?”

She raises a brow. “What do you think?”

The girl soaks the cat with oil. She lights the tail and the flame, like tongues, licks the air, crackling and leaping. The fur smolders, releasing a smell worse than the gutted fish. I cover my nose and mouth. Stumbling backward, I trip on a rock and fall against the metal fence. There, I see a penny with a round, smooth edge and copper gleam. Face up, Lincoln looks at the red stain smeared on the rock I’ve tripped over. In the sun, he winks as though he and I know something no one else does. 

My stomach churns. My breath is short. “You’re going to get into trouble.”

The girl turns to me. She walks closer and points the stick at me. “Who’s going to tell?” She sneers. Her eyes flicker. “Who’s going to believe you?” The question sounds peculiar like it’s something she had heard before and is now repeating. Just as quickly, she looks over her shoulder, drops the stick, grabs the oil and lighter, and goes back inside.

I snatch up the president and race home.

 

At dinner, Grandma thinks I’m tired from cleaning the basement and leaves me sitting at the dinner table, chewing my nails. She sets the table with a plate of bitter melon, picked from the garden, stuffed with minced pork and bits of noodles. I’m beginning to forget about the girl pointing the stick at me and the burnt smell of the cat when the sound of the doorbell makes me jump.

Grandpa gives me a side-glance and goes to the door. He brings back a handful of religious pamphlets, places them on the table, and returns to his bowl.  

Staring at the lotus painted on his rice bowl, I think about my mother in the principal’s office and know that my parents and grandparents tell me how hard life was in order to teach me lessons. Though I listen to them, I don’t always understand. I only know that when my face gets hot and my chest aches, I feel bad and that is the closest I get to understanding. At the moment, I’m sure I don’t want to go back to the neighbor’s house ever again because doing so feels wrong—as wrong as seeing the cat set on fire.

Again, the doorbell rings. This time I go to open the door and find the girl smirking at me. Though I had drunk water, my mouth is dry. My palms are sweaty.

“Come over after dinner or I’ll tell my father that you killed the cat.”

“But I didn’t,” I say, gritting my teeth.   

“Like I said, ‘Who would believe you?’” she says, then steps to the side and waves to my grandparents. She grins at me, hurrying out the gate and leaving it swinging.

At the table, Grandpa asks, “What did she want?”

“She got the wrong house,” I say.

I reach for a piece of melon. Though I lock my fingers to keep my hand from shaking, the melon drops from my chopstick. I gather it into my bowl and pick at the pork, pulling it out, scattering it over the rice, and shoving it back inside the melon. I frown because the pork looks a lot like the cat’s brain. I bite my lip to hold back a groan. “Would you . . . Say you found a cigarette in the driveway and I said, the girl left it there and she said I left it there, who would you believe?”

“Her,” Grandpa says, looking at my grandmother.

“Why?”

“Because she’s white.”   

I raise my voice. “But what if she did leave it there or tossed it over?”  

Grandma touches my arm. “It’s their country. Their words.”

“But this is my country, too,” I spit.

“A black boy and a white boy stand beside a graffiti. Who do you think did it?”

I wince. “But why?”

“Because it has always been . . . . ” Grandma says, as though I’m supposed to know.

My eyes blur, turning the bowl of rice into milk. I blink and touch my head to check for a crater the size of a rock, but my hand comes back clean. My tongue picks a piece of melon from between my teeth. It tastes more bitter than usual.

 

I bring a flashlight from the basement to my aunt’s room and tell my grandmother I’ll sleep upstairs because I want to finish a book. In the room, I pace back and forth and watch shadows move across the neighbor’s first and second-floor windows. I wipe my palms on my hands when I see the neighbor leave the house and get into his car. The headlamps dim as the car backs out the driveway. As it rolls down the street, the pink curtain opens. I fumble to point the flashlight at the window, on the girl’s face, and turn it on and off. She brings a finger to her lips and points at the room below me. 

I wait for all the lights in the house to turn off. My chest pounds too loud for me to hear if there’s movement from downstairs. Wanting this to be over, I hold my breath and decide the house is quiet enough. I tiptoe down the stairs and out the back door.

The streetlamps flicker on. Yet, they are too far down the street to light the way. Down the alley, I hop over the spot where I had seen the cat and wish I had brought the flashlight with me. Around back, I open the door and guide myself up the stairs in the dark. I want to turn on the lights and call out to her, but I’m afraid her father is still in the house even though I saw him leave.

At the top of the stairs, the girl screams, “Boo!”

I jump and shriek, clutching at my chest. “God . . . . Why don’t you turn on the lights?”

“It’s more fun this way,” she says, laughing. She goes into her room, takes off her socks, and climbs out the window onto the roof. She reaches for my hand.

“I don’t know,” I say, my throat dried and scratchy. “I don’t want to . . . ”

“No one is going to die. And if you do, you can’t be blamed for the cat.”

“This is stupid.” I take off my shoes and socks and climb out after her.

On the roof, the shingles are hot from the day. They feel like sandpaper under my feet. My chest thumps with the fear of slipping on a loose shingle or, worse, getting caught. Though I’m a good climber, I scoot myself toward her, afraid she would push me off. I lie down beside her with my eyes to the stars. My back breaks out in sweat and, as a breeze rolls over me, I shiver.

The girl reaches for my hand. Though I’m annoyed, her hand feels nice in mine.

I clear my throat and feel a droplet hit my face. “What’s your name?” 

The girl is quiet. Her eyes are closed. She takes a deep breath. “Sky.”

“Really?”

“No.” She shakes her head. “I like it though.”   

“Me too. Were you here last weekend?”

 “Home,” she says, frowning. “I told my mom about him.”

I sit up. “Did you tell her he sleeps in your bed?”

“No. That he’s never home.”

“Oh.” I yawn and look over at where I was waiting by the window. “I left the lights on,” I say, wondering if I had remembered to close the back door. I get up to go, but she pulls me back down.

“Just a little longer.”

I lie back down and tap my fingers on the roof to keep my hands from trembling. At that moment, rain droplets dot my face like freckles. I flinch.  

“You okay?”

“The rain makes me sad. My dad is a mailman, and he has to walk in it.”

“You’re sweet.” She turns to me. “Me, I want mine to burn and rot like that cat.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you why if you tell me a secret.”  

“Ummm,” I clear my throat, wiping rain from my face. “I have a jar filled with pennies I find on the streets, or anywhere. They’re lucky pennies.” I turn to her. “When I fill it up, I can make a wish.”

She laughs. “You’re serious?” She faces the sky and whispers, “Any wish?”

“Yes.”

She squeezes my hand. “And it’ll come true?”

“Yes,” I say, beaming.

“What would you wish for?”

I shrug. “Anything I want.”  

The rain pours, pelting droplets like marbles all around us. I pull my hand free and crawl back inside her room as she follows close behind. Inside, I feel her hand run down my back. As I turn toward her, she grabs my face and presses her lips to mine. My eyes are wide open; my body stiffens. When she pulls away, she looks at me again with that faraway look, as though she’s seeing through me. Her hands reach under my shirt. Though I liked the kiss, the weird feeling is creeping up my stomach. I push her away, tell her, “I’m thirsty,” and rush downstairs.

She joins me in the kitchen, looking sad as she pours me a glass of milk. “Is something wrong?”

 “No. Yes.” I say, thinking about her father, the cat, and the kiss. Then everything comes out in rapid fire: “It’s weird. Why does he live here, alone? Why does he sleep on your bed? Why does he sleep with no clothes on? I sleep with my clothes on.” I wipe my mouth. The weird feeling crawling up my throat. “I saw him. Your dad. He . . . he doesn’t. My grandpa says he’s not supposed to. He didn’t say it, I’m saying it, but I think he meant to say it,” I say, confusing my words with what I had heard. “Does your mom know . . . ”

“No,” she whispers with her head down. When she looks up at me, her eyes are red. “But, don’t you lo . . . like me?”

I don’t know what it means to like her, but when I see her eyes wet and shiny, I feel something soft sinking in my chest and I want to help, but I don’t know how. From the corner of my eye, I see the light in my aunt’s room go off. “Oh god.” I dash out of the neighbor’s house, leaving the glass of milk untouched. I slip on the grass as I run back as fast as I can through the rain. Please, please, please, I pray. Though I’m gasping, I’m hoping I’ll get there before they make the call. In a hurry, I forget there are steps to the back door. I fall forward and bang my head against the wooden frame.

Grandpa opens the door. Grandma stands behind him with the telephone in hand. I hear my mother through the speaker and heat rises to my eyes.

 

Mom picks me up in her pajamas. She’s screaming like she was screaming over the phone, but louder now. “Where were you? Who did you go with? Why didn’t you tell anyone?” She’s spits and stutters. Her face is wet and red, contorting.

I’m quiet, eying the veins bulging from her neck and thinking about what I know, about what I think I know, and about what I don’t know. I want to tell her where I was so she doesn’t worry, but I don’t know how to tell her where I was without her not worrying.

She yanks me by the arm and drags me to a corner. “What happened?” She bites her lips. Her matted hair makes the tilt in her eyebrows mean. “Where did you go? Tell me.” She’s gritting her teeth so hard I think they might break.

Then it happened again. Her face sags. Her eyes drop, tears brimming in their corners, just like when she picked me up from the principal’s office. She sighs, the air quivering from her chest. “This isn’t like you.” She’s shaking so much I think she’s going to hit me. “You’ve been different ever since the suspension. You’re so impulsive.”

Curious, I think, but the ache in my chest holds back the word. My eyes are hot like embers. I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t know if she would believe me. Instead, I’m angry at the girl; I’m shaking my head, wishing I had shoved her off the roof for getting me into trouble.

Mom’s grip loosens. She looks into my eyes. “Go grab your clothes.”

 

Mom puts me in the car and slams the door shut. She tells me to stay put and goes back inside the house. The porch light turns on, revealing a penny by the gate. It glistens from the rain. 

I stare at the porch, waiting. Though already in trouble, I can’t help myself. I open the door, pick up the penny, and notice the neighbor’s car pulling into the driveway.

I watch him go inside the house, walk in front of the first-floor windows, and climb the stairs to the pink room. He walks past the window and takes off his clothes. As if knowing I’m watching, he pulls down the blind.

I take the penny I’d found earlier from my pocket and rub the two copper surfaces together. The overwhelming smell of metal reminds me of the fish and cat. I turn my head toward the pink curtain and, as the weird feeling reaches the back of my tongue, tasting like her and me, a wish comes to me as clear and black as the sky after a storm has blown away the dust and clouds and washes the air clean.

I vomit.