James plods through the snow, searching for Brenda’s house. Letter City was once inhabited by the working Czech community of Haven. Now it’s the kind of neighborhood where some residents stay put forever while some move in and out so frequently that you can’t keep track of who lives where. There are narrow backyards abutting narrower alleyways. The houses are quite small but each has its own porch and small front yard, close to the sidewalk. Now and then, James passes a bungalow lavishly festooned with Christmas lights, but most are dark. The unplowed streets are almost impassable. He turns into a windless back lane, unnamed and rarely used. The snow is shallower here but there are no paw prints. Why did Dagou send him on this errand? His thoughts are interrupted by clear chimes, the bells of the nearby church, St. Ludmila.
James remembers he’s been here before.
He must have been 8 or 9 years old. He came this way with Leo on Mondays off. He recalls his father beckoning him with a jerk of his chin and the two of them heading out, hand in hand down the alley. James closes his eyes. There’s the sound of church bells, the odor of melting earth, old dogshit and rotting chestnuts. He and Leo standing at a back gate. His father’s hand twitching in his, his breath whistling through the warm spring air with taut anticipation. They had come to visit his friend, Sharon, a woman with curly yellow hair and ringing laughter. James understands, just now, that the woman, Sharon, was one of his father’s lovers. It was the dog in him. He wonders how much his mother knew about Leo’s wanderings. She must have known. James makes his way through the snow, down one block, then the next. It’s barely possible to recognize the backside of some houses by their size and color, glowing faintly in the snow: peeled white, slate gray, dull brown, blue siding. The colors are the same in back as in the front, but the backsides reveal bulky additions, sheds, cellar doors, air conditioning units, satellites and laundry lines; they are the secret sides of the houses.
He turns left into a parking area held in common by two somewhat shabby gray bungalows. He checks the address, steps onto the porch and knocks on the door.
Footsteps, quick and firm. The door opens and fills his eyes with soft, gold light. A dog darts from this radiance. James bends toward him and with a yip, Alf leaps onto his snowy knees.
Alf, warm and starry-eyed, wriggles up to lick him. James leans over with relief to grab the wagging dog. The door opens wider. A rush of warmth, the scent of spiced candles. A musical voice cries, “James!”
James is face-to-face with Brenda Wozicek.
The lamplight glows on her pale skin and the soft red yarn of her sweater. She has light eyes, fringed with thick, black lashes, and a plump, rosy mouth. Her dark hair has a wide, vivid streak of a deep turquoise.
Alf squirms in James’s arms. His collar is, of course, missing, and with it, his tag, shaped like a bone, with the Chaos’ home phone number. Now, he jumps to the floor and cavorts around Brenda. He lets her scratch his ears; he pants, grinning, tongue rolling, frantic tail whipping his buttocks vigorously back and forth. James, still dazed, hears an echo of his father’s voice: “The tail is wagging the dog!”
Brenda stops scratching; Alf’s tail droops. Brenda hoists him up, and he lolls happily in her arms. “James, you’re soaked. Come in and dry off.”
James is arrested by the beauty of her heart-shaped face. Ming might call her small-town, might talk ironically about her dye and tattoos, but she is undeniably sexy.
“Take off your coat,” she says, nodding to the coat rack. “You’re shivering. You need to dry off. Put your wet shoes here.”
Now he’s stuck, shoeless, in her house. Struggling to breathe normally, conscious of his sodden jeans, and — could it be? — the tears in his eyes.
“Sweetie,” she says, “you’ve gotten so big.” James nods stupidly, feeling the blood rush into his cold cheeks. “Did you come looking for me?” Brenda speaks softly, with surprise, as if it would please her more than anything if that were true. For a moment, he wants to say he did.
“Um, no,” he says. “Actually, I came looking for Alf. Dagou said he was here.” Alf and Brenda regard him quizzically. “Do you — I’m just wondering, does Alf come here a lot? You two seem super attached.”
“No, I just really love dogs.”
“How did he get here?”
“Maybe he’s got a girlfriend, somewhere in the neighborhood.”
Like man, like dog. Embarrassed, James changes the subject. “This is a nice place.”
“Thanks!” She shrugs, her full lips pouting. “It’s put a dent in my credit cards.” James steals another look around him, half expecting the room to waver and dissolve in arrears, but the lamplight is as warm as ever.
Alf jumps down and trots purposefully into the other room, as if someone else is there. Brenda glances behind her. James watches the soft line of her throat. She tucks a curl behind her ear in a furtive, restless way that confuses and excites him. Her small ear glows against the dark hair. Her movements are graceful and deliberate, but there’s something unpredictable about her — not quite impatient, not rebellious, but wakeful and resistant.
“Dagou sent you here?”
“Um, yeah.” She’s frowning. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Brenda says. “But I texted him to come and get Alf himself.”
At this moment, he’s startled to hear a light footstep from somewhere further inside the house. Self-consciously, he pulls his gaze away from Brenda.
Katherine Corcoran is standing in the doorway, Alf at her side.
“Katherine!” James swallows hard, wishing for Dagou. “Why’re you here?”
Katherine smiles. “I could just as well ask you that.”
“Looking for Alf. Dagou said—” He stops, struck by the recognition that Brenda texted Dagou to come over right when Katherine was visiting. Had Brenda planned an accidental meet-up of herself, Katherine and Dagou? Whatever her intentions, Dagou has, by sending James, made a narrow escape.
There it is, the elaborate setting, the luminous, bright green jade on Katherine’s finger.
“How are you?” he stammers. “I didn’t know you would be in town. I thought—”
“I’ll be in Sioux City at my parents’ on the 25th, but of course I still came to visit. I’ve been coming to Haven every Christmas for so many years.”
She knows he knows this; she stayed at their house, cooked in their kitchen. Katherine in an apron, learning from his mother how to wash the rice, how to let the oil get to just the right heat before throwing in the vegetables. She’s like an older sister to him. She even looks like his sister, with her dark hair and Asian features. She was adopted from a rural orphanage in Sichuan.
“Everyone here is family,” she says. “It’s so good to see you, James! How long has it been — since your high school graduation?”
Remembering Dagou’s fear of her smile, James has a sudden desire to run from the room.
Katherine gestures to Brenda, who nods graciously, “And Mary Wa has told me all about Brenda. It turns out we have so many things in common. We’ve been having a good talk — we’ve been planning the decorations for this year’s Christmas party!”
Brenda says, “James, what’s wrong with your hand?”
“That? Oh — it’s fine,” he says, trying to remember the origin of the scrape. It must have happened when he dropped his phone. He remembers the dismantled phone in his pocket and is anxious to go home. “Do you have a Ziploc baggie and dry rice?”
“No. When I want rice, I get takeout from the restaurant.”
“I should go.”
Brenda leaves the room, Alf trotting behind her. She brings back ointment and a bandage. As she dabs on the ointment and applies the bandage James can feel some tension or pain ease under her fingers. He sniffs her perfume — something woodsy, faintly sweet — and the combination of her touch, her nearness and her scent, is disorienting. Whereas Katherine is perfect, like an etching, Brenda’s beauty is multidimensional. Just being near her is making him uncomfortable. He can’t stare at her for one more minute, but he can’t stop staring.
“Come into the living room,” she says. James is led to the soft red sofa and lets himself sink into it.
Katherine leans toward him from a wing chair.
“James, help us with the party,” she says. “Your mom wants us to keep up the family tradition, even without her. She wants continuity. She told me all about the first party, the year the restaurant opened, when Dagou was 2 years old. All they could afford was noodles. They made eight different noodle dishes!”
Hers eyes are very dark, shining into his. He turns away, ashamed.
“I was thinking, this year, something special, in honor of your mother? We could decorate the restaurant with wreaths and fir branches? And red napkins and tablecloths of course: everything red for good luck and longevity. A real Christmas tree? We can retire the fake one. And we could make everything she likes. We could even make it vegetarian.”
“Vegetarian Christmas lamb,” says Brenda sweetly. “What do you think, James?”
“Yes, James,” echoes Katherine. “What would your mother like?”
James turns from Katherine to Brenda, then back to Katherine. Both women are watching him. “Um,” he says, stalling, “Ma is definitely a vegetarian now. But the Christmas party was always — well, kind of a meat free-for-all. So, I don’t know.”
The parties all began with readings from the gospel, but they devolved to food, drink, loud talk and laughter, children running, shrieking, breaking things, chaos, more chaos, his father getting drunk with Lynn’s father, engaging in a round of camaraderie and insults and his mother darting in and out of the kitchen — “like a chicken with her head cut off!” Leo Chao said — until everyone had eaten themselves into a state of food-drunkenness and drunk themselves to the brink of palpitations and staggered off into the night.
Alf is snoozing with his head propped up on Brenda’s lap. Brenda is eyeing James as if they share a secret.
Katherine is saying, “—tea candles, mistletoe, really good party crackers with—”
“What about Dagou?” James interrupts. His mother was always indifferent to candles, wreaths, miniature lit villages and fresh-cut spruce trees. He recalls Dagou’s notebook. “I think Dagou’s been making plans. He wants a simple meal. …”
“…in honor of your mother’s friends,” Brenda finishes.
In the silence that follows, James hears the clear and mystical sound of a single chime. Brenda slips a phone out of her pocket, checks it. She leaves the room. Traitorously, Alf follows again.
Excerpted from The Family Chao. Copyright (c) 2022 by Lan Samantha Chang. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Author Website: www.lansamanthachang.com
Purchase Here: https://wwnorton.com/books/9780393868074
Cover Image: Courtesy of W. W. Norton