we gather here
BY KIMARLEE NGUYEN
The saddest thing is when they pull the horses out from the stables and parade right round the road. Gotta give em some sunlight is what all the trainers say but I know its cause they gotta make sure we understand how the business run. No needa do it though, cause here, there is no one who don’t know how the racetrack be. Maybe if you living on the other side, the nice side where the train station letting people off but here, under the overpass, next to the tracks, we all know how things go.
Ayden and I walking up from the beach, with plastic bags a full of mussels. You don’t go mussel hunting past nine o’clock if you tryna to make a meal and on Sunday mornings, no one else out but the mussel hunters like me and Ayden and the rich fat ladies trying to walk off somma that weight. I’m bout five feet head of Ayden since he pulled that leg muscle working last year and so, I’m the first to see the line of horses the track decided to pull.
Some horses are old, I see that right away from their tree-branch legs and spotty tails. I know the track is right for pulling those out—too old for anything but the factories now. But some horses—like the one in front—just need a few days in the stall, some good food and everything be aright. The track, though, thinks of time only in slots fitting a race; five minutes is all you got and these horses can’t do nothing in five but walk slowly in front of me with those eyes that see everything.
The road that cut between the track and the overpass is littered with holes, some as small as my fist but there’s two that’s so deep, cars make fancy s-letter maneuvers to avoid them. One side of the road, where the track is, covered by a red brick fence that keeps falling down during the blizzard season. All across the fence, in big or small letters, markers or pens, is writing that can break your goddamn heart if you read it.
The other side of the road is half filled with just one bulletin board with a picture of the Mayor with the best teeth I’ve ever seen smiling. It’s always election season in this town, even when it’s not. The other half is filled with houses that lean and push against each other in a struggle to catch the sunlight falling haphazardly through the chain-link fence around the overpass.
There’s dirt paths in between the houses because the only fences round here cut us off from that racetracks, or the highways, or the school. The dirt is stomped flat by imprints of shoes walking to and from the house. Next to the houses, beside the dirt paths, nothing else grows. Just sticks in the ground for the reelection campaign.
Ayden say, Ba, we can’t be waiting here all day. Lets go, lets go.
My son wears patience and his leather boots the same way—until they are thin and no use to anyone. I say, Look at their faces. Full of something sad.
Yeah. Ba, cause those fuckers gonna be sold to the glue factory. He takes a long breath and slowly, like I didn’t hear him the first time, say Let’s go cause I’m hungry.
The last of the horses nearly broke my heart with the heavy droop of its head and the tangles in its mane. The trainer with a hand in the horse’s mane is smoking a menthol cigarette—pussy smokes—and nods like he knows us as he walks by.
There’s the smell of horse shit and old hay, smoke and the too much cologne the trainer wears. The plastic bag leaks out sea water against my legs, I can feel the salt gathering on the back of my knee and Ayden says, Let’s go, Ba.
When we come up from the hill, Ma is waiting for us with a crowd of the other women. She usually would say something full of acid to me about letting them all see that we eat mussels from the local beach but instead, she says loud, no time for that and Ayden grunts, peeling back his lips.
Everyone always goes to the beach because the sand, during tourist season, gleams white and the restaurants lining the boardwalk fries up good seafood, cheap cause all the owners buy in bulk the day before from the wholesale trucks.
The police finally drive round the streets after that girl from the Cape made a big ass deal about getting robbed and the city put up lampposts everywhere so now, no one can make out or smoke up without everyone else knowing their business.
So now, when I want some time alone after work, I take the long way home and use the bridge out back. It’s not true what they say bout rats big as your damn arm living back there—I been back there and a lotta time there’s just me and the cats. Those cats are mean though with big pissed-off eyes and tails long and lean. Sometimes, I see a kitten, looking so soft and small, peeking round a big mama cat’s hissing but most of the time, the cats leave me alone once they see I don’t got any food for them.
Don’t even know why there’s a bridge back there anyway—starts from the edge of the last parking spot on the beach and crosses a field of yellow grass, spotted here and there with the shit no one wants. Used cars, too old clothes, shoes, couches all torn up by the cats, bikes missing wheels. There’s even an old fryer that cost too much to dump and found its way back here, under the bridge.
I go there because Hess is waiting, like he always is after he’s done with his job at the car wash. A lotta the time, they don’t hire when you’re underage but Hess looks older than fifteen and has magic hands that makes almost dead engines purr smooth and sleek and the vacuums run fast and steady. When Hess is there, that shitty car wash becomes brand new again.
Magic hands that feel soft under my shirt, on top of my underwear.
He’s eating noodles from Chong’s when I come up on him from behind. He’s sitting on the milk crates he brought to the bridge from work and the end of his denim shirt is dripping with the blue fluid they use to defrost windows and clear out car ac systems.
Chong’s noodles are always heavy with grease and smell too sweet and I’m sure there’s brown sauce all over his face. Overhead, a plane flies by, heading somewhere better and bigger than here and I am deciding if I want to wrap my arms around his waist or his neck.
He is a small, hunched over figure sitting on a bridge of concrete bleached by the sun. From up here, the ocean looks clean and the people dotting the sand so small, I could crush them with my squeezed together fingers.
I am drinking him in, slow and steady.
Ma don’t understand the taste of silk but I think Ba does.
Those magazines, half-empty cartons of cigarettes and one light, turned on in the back, just in case Ayden needs to find his way home.
His hands against my windshield while drying off the excess water. Palms uncalloused, soft and white against the black wipers, fingers curled around the rearview mirror as he said hello, Ms. Kara! as polite as I have ever heard him.
And the men around us, laughing big belly laughs and I am blushing and blushing and trying to not let it show.
The town is small and everyone in it is too.
This side of town anyway where the houses are shorter, meaner. You can go all night listening to the screaming next door. Or, if you rent out like we do, you can just lay still and listening to all the small people above you and below you, trying to eek out something bigger, better.
At night, when Ma finished putting up the food and Ayden sinks out to meet one of his girls, I wait until I know Ba is out in the back porch, smoking his cigarettes and looking at his magazines Ma pretends she know nothing about.
I wait for the television to turn off, the lights in the hallway too until I creep out of bed and make to the closet.
In the bottom of the sock basket, where I know Ayden never goes, I ease out a pair of panties she gave me just yesterday before she walked me home. Bright red, I remember and there’s white bows at the top of each leg hole.
I put it to my nose and I take a deep, long smell. The panties still smell like her - I flick out my tongue and taste the inside triangle of silk. Just a taste of salt and something deeper too. I move quietly, taking off my shorts and slipping into the panties one leg at a time.
They’re tight at the waist but it’s not so bad and I go back into bed, wearing her panties and under the blanket, I stroke myself the way she told me to.
I like the feel of silk against the cotton blanket, I like feeling the softness and imagining her telling me to go slower, slower, take your time, won’t you please?
Softness in the night that’s too full of screaming about money and cars and other things that can’t be changed, not now or ever.
The thing bout mussels is that water brings them right round again. In a tin bowl filled with water from the faucet, I empty out my bag of mussels and then Ba’s. The shells hitting the sides of the bowl sound like rain, a cascade that drowns out the women in the room next door.
Ma’s the loudest of all.
She says, That slut—that slut's hurtin my boy.
Sometimes, mussels spit right back at you and send out the grit and sand that they’ve been hiding inside their bellies. I have never seen a mussel pearl, but that never stopped me from hoping. It’ll be just like that book - the only one I remember froms school. Open one of these motherfuckers up and the pearl of the world will be right there, next to the shit and grime. We’ll move into a bigger house, in a nicer city where people are too busy being happy to try to figure out how big your misery is.
Ba says in a voice more tired than I have ever heard him, A boy like that. No woman can hurt him. In his voice, he gathers Ma and all the other women in the living room, casting hooks into their mouths.
Now I don’t want to hear nothing else bout it. Ba says and his walk down the hallway to the back porch condemns us all. One after the other. One after the other.
There is dirt and soot at the bottom of the bowl and a pile of cleaned through mussels that are just enough for me and Ba to eat. Ma no doubt will be eating with the other women down at the temple and Hess, well, he found a new way to keep hisself fed.
I try not to think about it or the way she might smell. Probably good and nothing like grease or bleach like how Ma smells. Probably like the one or two weeks where the trees planted by the city bloom, right before the little kids fuck around and carve their names on the trunks or dump out their juice or cans in the dirt around, before the flowers brown and wither, small, back into their broken buds.
I don’t know why they don’t put the horses out to pasture. Let the sun whittle away at their old horse bones until brittle, until small, until fragments of what they used to be is all that’s left stitched into their old horse skin.
That’s what mercy is.
Kimarlee Nguyen was born and raised in Revere, Massachusetts in a family of Khmer Rouge survivors. Her family’s traumatic but triumphant history, as well as her own experience of growing up in a traditional Cambodian household, has shaped the heart of her writing. Recently graduated from Vassar College with a B.A. in English, she is currently pursuing an M.F.A. at Long Island University, Brooklyn. Her fiction has previously appeared in Drunken Boat, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Hyphen Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine and an upcoming anthology published by Third Women Press.
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