All That Work and
Still No Boys

Kathryn Ma
(University of Iowa Press)

    Auntie came in and sat herself on their sofa. Looked at the four girls lined up to greet her. Shook her head and clucked like a chicken. "All that work," she said to Ma with pity. "All that work and still no boys."

Anthony Gao is a twelfth grader who is a gifted violinist, yes ... but his story, as told by school counselor Kang Yak Chan, violates all the clichés. Chan asks the boy about college: "You want to leave home, don't you? You're not going to stay with your mom and dad forever?"

"'Why not?' said Anthony. Then he laughed at Chan's expression. "I guess you got away," he observed. A statement of fact, not admiration." Chan's own parents "had wailed when he left, but they gave him the money and practically pushed him onto the plane."

    Now Anthony shrugged. "Don't worry about my parents," he said. "They'll get over it, me not leaving home." He laughed at the irony. Chan was unnerved: most high school kids couldn't do that with such grace. Hypocrisy they spotted a mile away, and injustice they could smell if it was covered in clover, but an irony, especially if it involved their own parents, was usually too full of truth to look at long enough to see it.

The student becomes the ironic observer; the counselor ends up confused, like a kid.

§     §     §

It's a contrarian world here. Chinese sons who are not dutiful; girls who are not submissive; mothers who do the opposite of what their husbands demand of them. There is even a cat who is contrarian, named "Dougie." Dougie --- pronounced, presumably, "duggy" --- is a cat who likes to play with nuts. She appears in Nina's story. Both of them are rather strange.

    Dougie rolled the walnut from one end of the room to the other. It made a big racket. He kept rolling it back and forth, so Randy [Nina's brother] took it away from him, put it back in the bowl.

Cats who play with nuts. And weird Nina. Why does she refer to herself as "my wideness?" When she says she's "an expert on empty houses," we know it's because for two years she has been working at house-sitting for people ... but maybe she means something else. Why do people "scurry inside" when they see her coming?

    There's something about the set of my shoulders and the square of my hips that makes people nervous. If you can't be tall, wide is the next best thing.

And the stuff about her and her brother? "Maybe the stories about Randy and me are legendary, passed like tribal history from neighbor to neighbor, or disclosed as part of any real estate sale on the block. We did a few things in our youth. Maybe they remember that."

Brother Randy doesn't want to talk about it. She goes over to the sports bar he owns, and he gives her a steak ... on the house, as it were ... and then she wants to go home with him. "I want him to touch me," she thinks.

"You come with me," she says.

"No," he says.

"You used to," she says.

    "We were just kids," says Randy. "Will you just forget about it? It was stupid stuff, and should have ended earlier. But for Christ sake, I wish you'd leave it."

Nina asks Randy's new wife, the woman she insists on calling Miss Ann,

    "What have you done .... You've gone and got yourself pregnant? It's a bad idea. It's an all-around terrible plan. Randy hates babies. And he beats up on girls. He ever tell you that?"

Whatever it is that Nina's got, Ms. Ma ain't telling. Wherever she's learned her art, she's brought it to a fine pitch, not unlike the master himself.

In Henry James' stories, the prose can get quite wound up, but some of the key details are always left out, or hanging ... just to keep the reader wondering: "What is going on here?"

As we get to the end of the story of the cat named Dougie, we begin to think that perhaps it's for the best that all is not spelled out. Better for the writer, the reader ... maybe even for Randy and Nina. Especially when she leans forward to tell Miss Ann, now heavy with child, "He used to beat me up."

    "He'd do anything to get his hands on me. Once there was this dead mouse." I open my shirt by a couple of buttons. "He put it down my shirt. Just slipped it right down there" --- I shove three fingers down --- "and when I started screaming, he went looking for it again."

--- Lolita Lark
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