Tammy rapped at the door, but this was only a formality. Korean diet supplement advertisements on the television were harmonizing gloriously with her grandmother’s warby church choir voice. It would have been impossible for her grandmother to hear anyone at the door, even if they pounded and shrieked. She stepped into her grandparents’ lushly carpeted front room.
The house was slowly collapsing into the garden, crumbling into dirt. Ants streamed in through the window and mold grew thick and splendid on the windowsills. A hardy urban vine tracked up the outside walls. Tammy’s mother wanted them to move, to replace the fickle bathroom fans and get rid of the once-white carpets. But they seemed not to hear her, or not to care.
It had been this way for many years, as long as she could remember: her mother sent her to her grandparents house on Thursdays because she thought they were lonely, rotting away in that cul-de-sac along with their house. From a young age Tam knew this to be untrue. She did not know how her mother could be so deluded. Her grandparents’ friends congregated in the backyard under the trellis Tam’s grandfather had built. They filled the house with hymn books and golf balls and crimson vats of kimchee.
She called a greeting in her dimming Korean. Her accent had become weirdly Cajun as the years had passed. She could no longer mimic the short cheerfulness of the diet supplement advertisements.
The old stove hissed with oil. It had never been replaced.
Her grandmother cooked like Buddha, with many arms pouring and stirring and slicing. Danbi, her grandmother exclaimed, and smiled broadly. Bap mandljah?
Tammy nodded and went to wash her hands. She pulled rice from the cabinet, and leveled it into the deep bowl of the rice maker. It made a sound like heavy, happy summer rain, whatever that sounded like. She couldn’t remember the last time it had rained, much less in the summer. She brought the bowl over to the sink and watched the water turn chalky white with rice powder. She plunged in her hands and felt the rice clump in between her fingers. She lifted her hands, beaded with grains, and laid them down again into the rice. Pour your soul into the rice. Give life to the rice as it is giving life to you. She had once heard this on the radio, and thought it was wonderful. She let the water drain, and filled the bowl again, repeating the action until the water spilled clear. This process was more ritualistic than necessary, but Tammy liked to let her mind drift along the broad river of milky water ambling down the drain.
She let her mind, for once, lapse into gentle motion, thinking of nothing but the sound of the rice hitting the bowl like a string of colorful beads.
They ate, in the golden-fingered evening light. Her grandparents’ garden was fragrant, dense; something was blossoming at all times of the year. Lemons hung like lanterns. This opulent Eden had been a fixture of Tam’s childhood: cracking open pomegranates to reveal the glittering ruby seeds inside, biting into a kumquat and having it bite her back, picking thick kale and eating it stir-fried a minute later. Her grandparents would never abandon the garden. The crickets were already talking to themselves in the bushes. In the distance, the howl of a train played against the gathering darkness.
The food crowded the table, leaving no room for conversation. The eaters offered themselves up to a succulent shrine: bean sprouts, fried tofu, rice cake and egg soup, rounds of fishcake, salted black beans.
Her grandparents had two questions, which they asked every Thursday after dinner.
Danbi, are you studying hard? Playing piano?
Tammy nodded enthusiastically and swallowed guilt with a mouthful of lettuce and red pepper paste. Her grades were collapsing dramatically. And her keyboard in the corner of the living room hadn’t been touched in so long that it seemed to be shrinking.
Danbi is chego! Number one! Your abpa, he was very smart. Good at math.
Content, they would lean back in their chairs and rest. Just like the garden around them, they seemed to live in a state of perennial summer. As days shortened and that bulbous Santa head decoration bloomed up from the neighbor’s front gate, they barbequed and sat outside, untouched.
The haze sitting behind the skyscrapers faded. Were some divine hands constantly at work, rinsing the horizon until it ran clear?
The city was a desert, but every Thursday, in the fading tangerine light of the evening, it was an oasis.
RAE DOX KIM
Rae Dox Kim is a freshman at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco, where she is part of the creative writing program. She is fifteen, and enjoys writing short fiction. Her work has been published in The Skinny online journal and Ruth Asawa SOTA’s literary zine, Umlaüt. She is fluent in Korean and her favorite book is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. You can find her on Instagram at @literaelly_