WHEN I GET BACK FROM WORK, MY LITTLE BROTHER PAULY RUNS OUT THE FRONT DOOR AND TELLS ME OUR MOM IS CRYING. He pulls at my blouse and tugs me to the door. His cheeks are red from the cold. He looks like someone trying not to cry, trying to be older like his sister.
______“Pauly,” I say, “What’s wrong?”
______“I told you,” he says. “Mom’s crying.”
______He tugs harder, but I stop and turn him around. He can’t look at me.
______“Why is mom crying?”
______He chews at his cheek. He does that a lot until it starts bleeding.
______“Stop that,” I say. “Look at me. Why is Mom crying?”
______“Because she’s sad,” he says.
______“I know, buddy, but why is she sad?”
______“Because Dad left and Dad is a fuck-wit and Dad is sleeping with a slutty hoe.”
______“Did Mom say those things?”
______I shake my head. “You shouldn’t say those words again, OK? Those are bad words. Remember when we talked about good and bad words. Fuck-wit and slutty hoe are bad words. You won’t say them again, right?”
______I move to open the door, but I can hear my mom’s wails on the other side. She’s always freaking out in front of Pauly, who is sensitive, who is standing at my side, the tail end of my shirt bunched up in his fist. He seems to be staring through the wooden door, staring so intently I think he believes if he concentrates hard enough, he’ll be able to transport his nine-year-old will onto his mother and make her stop crying, make her smile and take care of us.
______I take his hand and walk the other way, toward the station wagon.
______“Are you hungry?” I ask. “Do you want an egg roll?”
______“Can we get one for Mom, too?”
______“Sure.” I put him in the car and he buckles himself in, immediately playing with the radio dials before I even start the engine.
______Pauly’s eight years younger than me, my parents’ unwanted child. There’s something wrong with him, though. He’s not too bright, but he’s not stupid either, not like what the kids call him at school: Palsy Pauly. I tried to make them stop once when I picked him up at school and he got it even worse, got it for having his big sister fight his battles. Still, he’s inquisitive beyond his years. My high school English teacher says a kid who asks a lot of questions is a kid who wants to figure out the world. If that’s the case, Pauly is already uncovering secrets we don’t know about.
______“Why is everything dark?” Pauly asks.
______I point to the car clock. “It’s getting late in the day.”
______“But remember when it was sunny till nine? Remember when we swam at the lake when the sun was out and it was nine?”
______I nod and make the turn into Wan’s Asian Cuisine.
______“Now it’s always dark,” Pauly says.
______I want to tell him it has something to do with the sun and the earth’s tilt and rotation. I want to tell him that a place in the southern hemisphere, a place in South America, is getting our summer light right now and in a few months it will be our turn again. But how do you explain astronomy and stars? How do you tell him how complicated everything is?
______“It won’t be dark for long, buddy. Just a couple months more.”
______Pauly looks down at his fingers. “When the sun comes back, can we go swimming again?”
______“Sure,” I say, patting his head. “Let’s go in and get some food.”
______I’ve worked at Wan’s since they opened. It’s the only Asian place in this town, the only Asian place in twenty miles. There’s little call for ethnic cuisine at the very tiptop of New York. The Wan’s aren’t really the Wan’s but the Somchi’s, a Thai family who emigrated here five years ago. The restaurant name means “sweet” in Thai, but most people mispronounce it, saying “wane” instead. They opened the restaurant their third year in the country, and at first, they cooked up what people thought was weird. They had to change the way they prepared their food. Put a few American appetizers on the menu like chicken wings and fries and mozzarella sticks. Deep-fry more than half the menu. Cut down on vegetables. Cut down on the stuff of their native country. They hate to do it—I sometimes see Mrs. Somchi shake her head at the sweet and sour chicken she just got out of the fryer—but they have to keep afloat. Once she cooked me a real Thai meal, the best meal I had in my life, but no one here has the palate for it.
______“Back again,” Mr. Somchi says. His hair is white with a few streaks of black. He smiles and waves. “Hello, Pauly.”
______“Sawadee, Mr. Somchi,” says Pauly. He puts his hands together and bows his blonde head in the traditional Thai greeting Mr. Somchi taught him months ago. For a while, he went around bowing his head at everything—the tree, the rose bush, the creek down the street.
______“We were wondering if we can stay here a bit,” I say. “Can we bother you for something to eat?”
______“Bother?” says Mr. Somchi. “Never. Me and Mrs. will cook real Thai food if Pauly can help.”
______Pauly looks at me eagerly, his eyes wide, his lips in a pleading smile.
______“Will you be good, Pauly?”
______“Do whatever Mr. Somchi tells you, OK?”
______He nods again. Mr. Somchi takes his hand and guides him into the kitchen.
______There is a table of customers in the back of the restaurant, a couple. Ron, the Somchi’s son, waits on them. He’s back briefly for winter break from a college in Pennsylvania. I’ve missed working with him. We often played silly games: switching orders on each other, stealing each other’s tips and replacing it with a penny. When we closed up at ten, he and I stayed in the parking lot and talked until midnight. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about me. On his last day before heading off to college, he kissed me. It wasn’t a romantic movie kiss, but it was long and a bit wet, enough to make me breathless for just a moment, enough to make me think of him the three months he’s been gone. Since he’s been back he hasn’t mentioned anything about the kiss. Mrs. Somchi told me he has a girlfriend at college, a nice Asian girl.
______Ron carries half-eaten dishes in his hand and dumps them into a cart of other dirty dishes. When he sees me, he smiles. “Don’t you have a home, Lily?” he says with a barely noticeable accent.
______“Not right now,” I tell him. “I like it here better.”
______“Right,” he says. He goes back to the customers, water pitcher in hand. I stare at his back, through his white button down, then down to the frayed edges of his jeans. His hair is growing out. I can almost tie it into a ponytail. I’ve already heard Mr. Somchi complain about the length of his son’s hair and how it might dangle in the food.
______The customers stand and leave. Ron tells them to come again, tells them it was an honor to serve them tonight. They wave, but say nothing.
______“You’re such a brownnoser,” I say.
______“Helps with the tips.” He flashes me the ten the customers left him.
______I shake my head, rolling up my sleeves and clearing off the rest of the dishes.
______“You’re not getting paid for this,” he says, wiping the table clean.
______“It’s called helping,” I say.
______“You’re doing a better job now than when you were clocked in.”
______When we finish up, we sit at an empty table and look outside. A few people trickle into the bar next door. It looks like it’s going to snow.
______“It’s slow today,” I say.
______“No one wants to come out in the winter,” he says. “Not that I can blame them. The weather’s real shitty. Do you know we get the craziest weather here because the jet stream swoops up over where we are?”
______He wrinkles his brow. “I’m taking a meteorology class. It’s cool. I didn’t think it would be. It’s one those dumb requirements I had finish off, but man, I really dig it. I—” he stops short, then shakes his head. “Forget it.”
______“You’re gonna think I’m a loser.”
______“Too late for that.”
______He softly punches me in the arm and I fake how much it didn’t hurt. “No, seriously, tell me,” I say.
______“I want to be a meteorologist.”
______“Like on TV?”
______“Sorta,” he says.
______“I’ve never seen a Thai weatherman before. Maybe you’ll do a better job than some of the people here. Tell us the correct weather for once.”
______“That’s the thing,” he says. “There’s a science to weather. It’s all numbers and equations, but sometimes nature does what it wants to do, and when that happens it’s a guessing game.”
______Ron sits on the edge of his seat, eyes wide. There’s a child-like excitement in his face, like when Pauly gets a scoop of peppermint ice cream from Buster’s. I notice a little hair growing under his bottom lip. It’s like a button I want to press.
______“I hear you have a girlfriend,” I say.
______He turns away and stares at his shoes. “We’re not serious.”
______“You don’t have to say that for me.”
______“I’m not,” he says.
______I chew on my cheek just like Pauly does. Ron stares at the red carpet. I hear Pauly squealing in the kitchen, squealing and clapping. I know my face is red. I fix my eyes on a wooden carving of an elephant. One of its tusks was missing so I replaced it with a toothpick. Ron said it was ingenious. He said I was pretty smart for a white girl.
______Now he says nothing and his mouth is tightly shut. It looks so small, his mouth. I have an urge to shove a peanut between his lips. I tell him so.
______He bursts out laughing. “God, Lily, how do you come up with that?”
______I shrug and laugh with him.
______Pauly runs out of the kitchen, smiling. Ron picks him up and places him on his knee.
______“You’re getting big,” Ron says. “I don’t know if my knee can take it.” He rocks Pauly dramatically up and down. Pauly laughs again, throwing his arms to the side, as if he was on a roller coaster.
______Then he looks at me and says, “I want to be a chef, Lily.”
______“Sounds good, buddy,” I say.
______“I really helped in there. I rolled up some egg rolls. I put some of the shrimp stuff on bread. I put sticks through chicken. I wasn’t allowed to put stuff in the fryer though.”
______“That’s good,” I say. “You’re still too little for that.”
______“But I really helped,” Pauly says again.
______Ron ruffles his hair and says, “If you become a chef then you’ll put my family out of business. Then we’d be poor and live in boxes.”
______“Why would you live in a box?”
______“Because that’s where poor people live,” Ron says.
______“Living in a box sounds fun,” Pauly says.
______“Nice,” I say. “Now he’ll want me to find a box so he can live in it.”
______Mr. Somchi comes through the kitchen door with a steaming platter of appetizers. “Pauly’s Pu Pu Platter,” he announces. He puts the plate on the table. Heat rises from the food. It smells wonderful, like what I imagine Thailand smells like. Then I notice the misshapen egg rolls, the lumps of shrimp on the toast, and chicken barely hanging on skewers. Pauly’s creation. Mr. Somchi laughs. Ron laughs. I laugh. Pauly, who doesn’t know why we are laughing, laughs with us. Each of us grabs an egg roll. I take a bite and close my eyes and start nodding like I’ve just been transported to Food Heaven. “This is the best, buddy. The best.”
For three days, Mom locks herself up in her room and cries. For those three days, Pauly comes with me to work, where he plays sous chef for the Somchi’s. At night, he stays in my room and we blast the radio to cover up Mom’s wails until we fall asleep. Sometimes Pauly asks why Mom’s still crying, why she can’t stop. Is she broken, he wants to know, like the cd player that skips all the time? He worries she’ll drown in her room, her tears filling and filling the space. Maybe we should leave a floating tube outside her door. In gym, he tells me, he has to wear floating tubes around his arms and it makes him rise to the surface of the water. There’s nothing to worry about, I say, she won’t drown. I tell Pauly that not everyone in the world is like our mom and dad. Look at the Somchi’s, for instance. They’re happy, normal people. That’s what we are. Happy and normal.
______Earlier today, Mom stops crying and there’s this strange silence in the house. We grew so accustomed to her sobs that when they finally stop there is an absence as if someone has kidnapped our mother and she hasn’t stopped crying at all, but now is crying elsewhere. I’m called in to work within the hour after she stops. Ron says he has to help his dad pick up a shipment of vegetables. He needs someone to cover for him during the lunch rush. I tell him OK, I’ll be there. I try to make my voice sexy and deep and he asks if I’m sick. Since I’m not going to be gone long, I tell Pauly to stay home.
______When I enter the house again, Mom is crying and Dad’s clothes are scattered in large mounds. She color-coordinated the mounds. A green mound lies by the front door. Black in the kitchen. Red and blues in the living room. I don’t see Pauly anywhere. I call out to him, but no one answers. I call out again. A mound of whites trembles. Amidst Dad’s T-shirts and button downs is Pauly. A pair of briefs dangles off his left ear. Socks and others white articles of clothing are topped heavily on his head. His hands cup his ears. I crouch on my knees and gently move his hands away, but he jolts them back up and shakes his head.
______“It’s OK, buddy.”
______“No it isn’t.”
______“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry I left you. I won’t do it again, OK?”
______My brother shouldn’t have a deep frown, shouldn’t hear his mother cry every day. I offer him my hand and he looks at it. I tell him we’re going on a trip. “Do you want to go on a trip?” I say. He nods, his hands still over his ears. I tell him to go in the car, I’ll be there in a second. He does.
______I pack a suitcase with some clothes. I don’t choose, but grab handfuls and cram them in the suitcase. I go to Pauly’s room and do the same. I throw in a few of Pauly’s favorite action figures and comics.
______When I’m done, I stand outside Mom’s door. I want to kick it down. I want to shake her until she sees what she has done to Pauly. I want to tell her she can’t do that to a nine-year-old. You can’t just stop being his mother. You can’t cry all day and leave me to clean up after you.
______But I can’t say these things. I run my hand over the door and then turn and leave.
______In the car, Pauly still has his hands over his ears.
______“You can put your hands down now,” I say.
______He shakes his head. “I can still hear her.”
______“Buddy, please, take your hands down.”
______He shakes his head.
______“God dammit,” I say, “take your hands off your ears.”
______He does. “You said bad words.” His mouth is shaped like an O, his eyebrows perked up.
______“I know, buddy,” I say. “I’m sorry.” I grab the wheel hard. I don’t want to cry. I can’t. Not in front of Pauly.
______I wipe at my face and start the car. I head over to Wan’s. I need to tell the Somchi’s I can’t work today. I need to tell them I won’t be able to work for a while. Outside the restaurant, Ron throws salt by the entrance. The sun is out for once and few icicles drip off the restaurant roof. He waves when we pull in. I don’t get out of the car, but roll down the window.
______“Hey,” says Ron. “Thanks for covering for me this afternoon.”
______“Yeah,” I say. “I can’t come to work today. Can you tell your mom and dad that? Can you tell them I won’t be able to work tomorrow either?”
______“Sure,” he says slowly.
______I don’t look at him.
______Pauly says, “We’re going on a trip.”
______I can feel Ron’s stare. I’m afraid if I look at him I’ll lose it.
______“Where?” says Ron.
______“Where?” Pauly asks me.
______“I’ve been checking the weather radar,” he says, “and the whole east coast will be hit with big snow.”
______Pauly says, “My mom is crying again.”
______“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ron says more to me than to Pauly. I know he sees the suitcase in the back of the car. “It’s not safe to travel today.”
______“Listen,” says Ron. “Let’s get a freeze.” He ruffles Pauly’s hair. “You want a freeze?”
______“Can we, Lily?” says Pauly.
______“Can we?” says Ron.
______Both of them are smiling. I shake my head. I can’t say no.
______Ron goes back inside to tell his parents he’ll be right back. He hops in the back seat and I pull out of Wan’s and head for the convenient store a mile a way.
______We drive in silence until Pauly asks, “What is a cunt?”
______Ron laughs into his hand.
______I don’t find it funny. “When did you hear that word?”
______“Mom kept saying it over and over. Mom kept saying cunt and crying.”
______I look in the rearview mirror and Ron stares and smiles.
______“Can you tell him what a cunt is?” I say to his reflection.
______“Out of my territory,” he says.
______“Out of mine, too.”
______“What is a cunt?” says Pauly again.
______“Don’t say that anymore,” I say.
______“Is it a bad word?”
______I shake my head.
______When we pull into the convenient store, I tell Pauly to stay in the car.
______Ron and I get out and stand by the car.
______“Do me a favor,” I whisper.
______“OK,” he says.
______“Buy me a nude magazine.”
______“Just buy me a nude magazine.”
______“Fine. Which one?”
______“A root beer freeze. Mix it with some orange and strawberry, too. It’s Pauly’s favorite.”
______Ron moves like he wants to hug me, but he places a hand on my shoulder and says, “What size freeze?”
______“The biggest one.”
______He nods and enters the store. I go back in the car.
______“Is he getting me a freeze?” Pauly says.
______I nod. “Listen, Pauly,” I say, “we’re going away for a bit, OK?”
______“Where do you want to go?”
______He thinks hard, putting his hand on his chin. “I want to go to the beach so I can swim.”
______“OK,” I say, “we’ll go to a beach.”
______When Ron gets in the back seat, he hands Pauly the freeze and puts a flat paper bag next to him. “I better get back,” he says. I pull the car out of the lot. “You can live with my family,” Ron says.
______I don’t say anything.
______“Until it’s better to travel in. I’m serious. The roads are going to be bad.” He points out the window, at the clouds darkening from the south.
______“Can we?” says Pauly.
______“Can you?” says Ron.
______I smile. “Thank you,” I say. “But we need to leave. We need to go as soon as we can.”
______When we arrive at Wan’s, Ron gets out and says think about it. He tells me his mom and dad loves us and wouldn’t mind taking us in.
______“Thank you,” I say again. “Tell them thank you for everything.”
______Ron leans into the window and kisses my cheek. His lips hover over my face for a bit before he turns to go.
______I don’t pull out of the parking lot. I sit in the car, trying to feel the warmth of his lips a bit longer. “You still want to know what a cunt is?” I say absently.
______I take the magazine from the bag. It’s an issue of Oriental Dolls. A big-boobed Asian girl cups her breasts. I sigh and show Pauly. He blinks and blinks again. I almost laugh and cry all at once. For the next hour, I teach Pauly the things he wants to learn, passing the freeze back and forth in the parking lot of Wan’s. When the sun disappears, I turn on the interior light. A few customers go in and out of the restaurant, none taking notice of two kids flipping through porn. I point at a cunt and say that’s a cunt. Pauly points to a picture of a man’s penis, hovering over a naked woman’s face and asks if his pee-pee will get that big. I tell him that someday real soon his will grow, don’t worry. I answer all my little brother’s questions. Even the ones I don’t know the answers to. Even the ones about our mom and dad and whether the two-page spread in front of us is the thing that’s making our mom cry, this spongy-looking UFO Pauly says it looks like. And I take a long hard swig of the freeze, my head, my brain, so cold, and I keep drinking, sucking all I can from the straw before I tell my little brother that this UFO has carried our parents so far away, through millions of time zones and planets and stars and that when they come back they won’t recognize us, and we won’t recognize them. Outside, the snow begins to fall. The first few flakes float down and I start the car and put it into drive. When I pull out of Wan’s, all we see is a wall of white.