Read The Year She Left Us Online

Authors: Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us (6 page)

BOOK: The Year She Left Us

“That's A.J.,” I told Charlie. A smear of pink waiting her turn to be lifted. A.J. hated pink, so I wanted to see her wear it.

“And who's that?” Charlie asked. By then, I'd heard from WeiWei all about her father. How he'd laughed when she told him what she'd said to that five-year-old girl. Charlie was pointing at a large figure in my picture, a man with curly hair and a wide smile, who was standing next to a bushy green tree. He wore a blue and gold jacket with a matching baseball cap on his head. He looked a lot like A.J.'s father.

“That's my father,” I said. “WeiWei said it was okay to put him in.”

“Of course it is,” Charlie said quickly. “Your father, like your birth father? Do you want to put in your birth mother, too?”

I held on to the top of a kitchen chair and kicked the rungs as hard as my sneakers would let me. “My father, like your husband. Like if you had one. One for both of us,” I said.

“Oh, honey,” Charlie said, pulling me in for a bony hug. I drew my fists up to my shoulders and locked my legs, but Charlie didn't get it, and my feet didn't leave the floor.



wanted to go away again the minute I got home from Beijing. Charlie dragged me to the doctor, a total prick who exhaled coffee breath all over my finger while lecturing me about keeping the wound clean. He totally bought my accident story, or if he didn't, he figured it wasn't his problem. I was right to let Charlie come into the room with me to hear what the doctor said. When he asked about the accident, I could tell she wanted to believe me. It was too scary for her to think that I had cut off the finger myself. Next to the doctor, she looked older and grayer; with her hair pushed back, the frown line between her eyebrows looked like a scalpel nick, though the rest of her looked younger. She was wearing skinny pants I hadn't seen before, a big improvement over her baggy old ones. She'd told me that while I was away, she'd hit the gym and been out every weekend with friends. Seeing those pants—black jeans, tight at the ankle—I didn't know how to feel. I was glad, I guess, that she'd been taking care of herself, but it was strange to think of her having a life without me. At the first chance I got, I left her mooning in the apartment with my luggage exploded from one doorway to the next, grabbed the bus, and rode to Pen and Parchment.

Niall was working and so was Katie O.; they grinned when they saw me and motioned to meet in the stockroom. Niall set down the box he was carrying and folded me in a hug that smelled happily of cigarettes and bike sweat. He was wearing his leather vest with the broken zipper and the two patch pockets he had slashed with a Cutco knife that he was trying to sell to a Presidio Heights housewife who had asked him to verify that his knives were better than Macy's. His streaked hair was shorter and blonder; he'd gone surfing, he said, in Southern California, where the water was actually warm, not like the crazy cold of Ocean Beach and Pacifica.

“My God,” said Katie. “You look like a stick. Didn't they feed you in China?”

“It was hot,” I offered. “But I really loved it. You can't eat in weather like that. All the women carry these frilly umbrellas to keep the sun off their faces. They don't want to get tan. They prize whiteness.” Katie laughed. She worked in the framing department. We used to recite the names of the mats people could choose from: stone white, Caribbean sands white, snowdrift white, true white. Prize white. That was the one she pushed on customers who brought in professional photographs of their children, the kids arranged in front of beach houses or vineyards, the teens always guarded, the babies doing that funny gummy smile with a couple of teeth like tiny tablets. I worked in paper and sometimes in blank books. Once in a while, Kurt told me to help Ines in the fine pens department, where Ines grudgingly let me handle a Parker or two.

“Let me see you,” I said. I twirled Katie halfway around and admired her new tattoo. She had added a florid hummingbird to the back of her arm, a ballsy choice, since she was kind of pudgy and, over time, that hummingbird might grow to look like a pigeon. The greens made her skin tone look even pinker. She couldn't see it herself except in a mirror. But Katie didn't care. Gaze upon me, was her message to the world. You can do my looking for me.

“You're home early,” Niall said. We'd agreed before I left to keep things loose between us.

I told them about the accident. I showed them my clumsy bandage.

“Then you need med-i-cine,” Katie suggested. “Come back at six o'clock.”

I looked at Niall. He was glancing out the stockroom door, but he turned and nodded and said he'd stick around if I returned after Kurt left. I went out the back and walked ten blocks to a taqueria, hoping some of my favorite food would revive me. Starting in Beijing, I hadn't been able to swallow very well. My throat felt tight all the time, like I had buttoned myself into a shrunken blouse or struggled into a hooded sweatshirt that didn't fit me anymore. I ordered chicken and black beans and an
agua fresca
, but after a few bites, I had to push the plate aside. I checked my phone: it wasn't yet time to walk back to Pen and Parchment; Kurt wouldn't leave for another hour. I stared at my hand; the bandage I wore reminded me of the silk cocoons we'd been shown in China, our tour guide narrating the miracle of it all. I wished I could feel my finger aching or throbbing instead of what was coming on: an emptiness, a loneliness, a kind of rising panic, the fleeting sensation of what I had felt in Kunming right before I shut myself in the bathroom.

I checked my phone again. The time had barely budged. I stared out the window and prayed for the hour to pass.

urt, the manager, left at five minutes after six. From the corner across the street I watched him lock the front door. I scooted around to the back, and Katie let me in while Niall turned off the rest of the store lights. The summer fog hadn't yet reached this part of the city, downtown and close to the Mission, and late-afternoon sunlight brightened the store near the windows. Pads of creamy paper and pens of every color filled the long shelves, beckoning to be handled. Far back from the windows, the center of the store was dark, but the glass cases up front that housed the fine pens glowed faintly like displays in a museum. I wandered down the aisles looking at the prettiest things, the handmade papers and the silk-covered books. Katie called me over to the children's department, where she had pulled up four stools in primary colors and the low art table we used for rolling joints.

“This is Drue,” said Niall. “She works in the art department. This is Ari. She used to work here.”

My eyes adjusted to the dim, and I saw a blonde girl standing next to a children's easel. I said hello, and she gave me a tentative smile. She wore a flowered dress over frayed blue jeans. Her face had the petaled look of the unsexed. Behind her, Katie rolled her eyes at me and pointed to the box of a large jigsaw puzzle, the lid showing kittens and puppies, but Niall stayed standing next to Drue until Katie pulled him down and demanded that he start rolling. By the time we were done—and the four of us, laughing, had traced ourselves against the easel and then jostled our way toward the back door—Niall's tanned arm was glued around Drue's shoulders.

Katie O. tripped, cursing. It was after eight, and the fog had rolled in, so that even the fine pens department had disappeared into gloom. In the darkness, I got confused and turned toward the paper department while the others went straight. I heard Katie laughing and calling, “Ari, you dumb shit, where are you going?” I stuck out my good hand and tried to feel my way to the others. The friendly feeling of the earlier hour had collapsed, and I felt the black center of the store yawn wider.

When I had jumped on the bus to escape to Pen and Parchment, I suppose I had been thinking in the back of my mind that I might spend the night with Niall, but in the end, with nowhere else to go, I rode the bus back to the marina and crept into the apartment. Charlie was asleep. She'd left me dinner in the oven. I had a few bites and then stretched out on my bed, strangely wired. Despite my exhaustion, despite the pot we had smoked, I was wide awake, because in Beijing it was the middle of the afternoon. I thought about calling A.J., but she'd be full of questions that would send me stumbling further into the dark. Then I thought of WeiWei, and before I could stop myself, I texted,
, and waited five minutes, then ten, then longer. We hadn't talked for many months—her time was precious, her orbit crowded—but maybe, seeing my name, she'd know, as she always had, that I needed someone to talk to. I sent a second message, just in case she didn't see the first one. The bed was too soft after my thin mattress in China. My eyes hurt from the glare of the screen on my phone. If Charlie had awakened and come out of her bedroom, she would have seen flashing light coming from under my doorway as I checked and rechecked to see if WeiWei had answered. But WeiWei didn't call, and Charlie didn't come looking, and I couldn't rise to tap on my mother's door.



harlie waited for the conference room door to open. It was four o'clock in the afternoon; she had booked the room for a client meeting, but her boss, Hal Nugent, the public defender, was in there with two senior deputies who handled felonies. She could see them arguing through the smudged glass. Hal's white shirt was stained and rumpled. Danny and Paula were leaning against the table, Danny drinking from the mug he carried around the office with a picture of his kids holding butterfly nets. Hal stabbed the air and started yelling at Paula, who threw up her hands and yelled right back. The best advocates, Charlie believed, were the ones hard-wired for combat, who brought the fight to the other guy and gave no quarter. She wasn't that kind of lawyer. In her twenty-three years of being a public defender, she had learned how to raise her voice and when to pound the table, but tenacity, not fireworks, was Charlie's secret weapon.

She had realized early on that she would have to figure out how to stand up for herself without imitating the men. It was years ago in a courtroom, before a grumpy law and motion judge. Her supervisor at Legal Aid, a wily lawyer named Marcus with twenty years on Charlie, had brought her along to see how things were done. She stood nervously, ready to speak if asked. The case was routine; the bailiff was yawning, and the courtroom clerk was on the telephone right in front of the bench, but Marcus bulled ahead, loudly complaining, to the enjoyment of the lawyers waiting their turn in the gallery, that the landlord's attorney was willfully obstructing the process.

“You're wasting the court's time,” the judge said. He glared down at Marcus, ignoring Charlie. “This is a simple matter, and yet you've managed to make this file”—he looked over at his bailiff, who was standing close to counsel table—“what is that, Fred, six inches?”

The bailiff held up the fat file. “Looks like that to me, Judge,” he said.

Marcus grinned. He muttered just loudly enough for the bailiff to hear. “What do you know about six inches, Fred?”

Charlie was shocked. Had she heard him correctly? She expected Fred to turn and tell the judge what Marcus had just said. Instead, Fred grinned back and replied with a brief hand motion for Marcus's entertainment. The judge ruled against them, but Marcus was undaunted. He clapped his hand on the client's shoulder and sent the guy home with fifty bucks from Marcus's pocket.

“What do you know about six inches?” Charlie tried it out a couple of times in her office. She'd be skewered, probably fired from her job and hauled up for misconduct. She decided to watch and learn from the senior women attorneys, but there were only two, and both of them were vicious. Les, her sister, was in trial all the time, but Charlie couldn't duplicate Les's cool command of the courtroom.

Over the years, Charlie had learned to follow her own instincts. She left Legal Aid and became an assistant public defender, choosing, after a few years, to handle parental abuse and neglect cases. Sometimes she was the kid's attorney; other times, she represented a mother or father whose kids might be taken away. Where Hal Nugent might bellow and bluster—to good effect; he cowed a lot of opponents—Charlie mastered the details. She would never be a performer. Instead, “I object,” became the essence of Charlie's practice. What she brought to the game was the strength of her convictions. Stubbornness was her method, and indignation her bulwark against cynicism, burnout, humorlessness, and despair.

Les was different. She spoiled for a fight. Before she became a superior court judge, she'd been a cowboy litigator in a small downtown law firm known for its stable of pugnacious trial lawyers. The brain trust, the local courtroom reporters called it. Plenty of people were put off by Les's manner. Some called her arrogant; others assumed she was a lesbian, and most of her opponents at some point had accused her, behind her back or to her face, of being a righteous bitch. Charlie hated such talk. Since childhood, she had looked up to Les for her keen mind and her sense of fairness. It was Les who had inspired Charlie to become a lawyer, even though she knew that Les had more natural talent for the job. To Les, arguing was as necessary as eating a meal or walking. She was hardly aware of her bulldog aggression, and Charlie loved her and pitied her for it, for she felt that Les was unhappy to be alone while Charlie was content. And of course she had Ari.

Now, waiting in the hallway, Charlie heard through the glass the muffled name “Wilson” and suddenly wished she weren't standing by the door. Maybe she could retreat casually back to her office, but Paula had already spotted her and held up a pinch of air. Charlie hugged her sheaf of papers. Her client, Va, was already ten minutes late. She hoped that Va would show up alone, not like at her detention hearing a week ago, when Va had brought her twelve-year-old son to court. “I didn't have no one who could watch him,” Va had said. If she brought him again today, he'd have to wait in the lobby. Va's younger son, four-year-old Manu, had been detained by the court and ordered to live with his aunt for a while. Now Va, like any mother, wanted her four-year-old back.

The conference room door opened. Hal and Danny and Paula walked out smiling and joking, so Charlie knew they hadn't really been fighting. Probably Hal had been venting about an overreaching prosecutor or a judge screwing a client.

“Hey, Kong,” Hal said. He clapped his meaty hand on Charlie's shoulder. She saved her suits for the courtroom, but she had three loose blazers, one black, one beige, and one navy, which she wore around the office. Today, in her beige jacket, tan shirt, and unbelted brown pants, she looked as washed out as she felt. In the two weeks since Ari had come home, she hadn't said more than a few words to Charlie. They hadn't had a meal together or sat down for a conversation. She was either out all the time or asleep when Charlie left for the office. Charlie was determined to sit her down for a talk.

“Your sister's killing me,” Hal said. “On this Wilson Ng case. She's got a bug up her ass, and it's biting me in the balls. What the hell's she thinking?” he turned to ask Danny and Paula. He knew that he shouldn't talk to Charlie directly, that she wasn't permitted to discuss the matter with Les, but he wasn't finished complaining. Hal was trying the case himself with Danny and Paula. Les was the judge assigned to the preliminary hearing on whether the attempted murder case against Wilson Ng, a local plumber, could go to trial. There was a hate-crime charge, too. The media were going crazy.

“She's giving the D.A. all the time in the world to blow this thing out of proportion. So Wilson let fly a couple of racial insults. Who could blame him? The guy was frightened for his life. That's why he picked up the pipe in the first place. His boss was a bigot. A total asshole.”

“Riordan's the asshole,” Paula said. “He's playing up to the media, appearing with the Pied Piper's family, yammering on about race-blind justice.” Patrick Riordan, the district attorney, had assigned the case to a deputy to try until Hal announced that he would handle the defense himself, shaming Riordan into taking first chair for the prosecution.

“Who's the Pied Piper?” Charlie usually made it a point not to learn much about cases in front of Les. After a trial ended, they sometimes talked about the issues, but never before, while a case was pending.

“That's Wilson's boss, the guy he beat with a pipe, but as far as I'm concerned, Wilson's the true victim here. Ronald ‘the Pied Piper' Porter, so named because of his alleged connection to a copper-stripping operation that goes on all over the city. They go onto construction sites and strip the pipes and sell the copper. Porter is one of the middlemen, but the cops haven't caught him yet and the witnesses have clammed up. They had an investigation going. With Porter out of commission, they've pulled the whole thing off-line. All the public sees is an unemployed Chinese guy who beat up his white boss with a pipe. Never mind that his boss abused him for years or is a criminal himself or made the first move against Wilson.”

“Did he?” Charlie asked. “Have you really got self-defense?”

Hal shrugged. “If that's all I'm left with, yeah, we got it. But it gets a helluva lot harder if your sister lets that hate-related sentence enhancement stand. For the D.A. to charge this thing as a hate crime, Jesus. You don't stick a Chinese guy with a hate crime against his white boss! Nobody's going to end up happy. We're in the largest courtroom, and there's a crowd out the door. Reverend Yeung and Reynold Low are calling me up every hour.” He jerked his head at Charlie. “I bet you've heard from them, too.”

Charlie nodded. She had known Reynold since her Legal Aid days when he was an advocate for Chinatown low-income housing. Later, he started the Chinatown Housing Project, which he and Reverend Stanley Yeung had built into a multiservices provider, a key nonprofit that served thousands, not just in Chinatown but all over the city. Charlie had served two terms on the board of directors; her term had ended two years ago, but she still showed up for all the fund-raisers and for Reverend Stanley's legendary dumpling-making parties. She had e-mails from them both asking for her to come to a benefit for Wilson Ng. She had sent back an apologetic message: I can't get involved; my sister's on the case. They knew that, of course. Like Charlie, they were tenacious.

“What a mess,” Hal said. He sounded almost sympathetic. “It's warfare out there in our fair city. You could Google map the factions in this thing: Chinatown versus the unions versus me, Hal Nugent, foot soldier in the Norman Conquest.” He turned to Danny, who rolled his eyes at the boss. “I'm serious,” Hal said. “Afghan warlords are going to start showing up next. Your sister, where does she live?” His shrewd eyes were back on Charlie.

But Charlie wasn't a twenty-five-year-old baby lawyer anymore.

“She's a judge,” she replied. “She lives on Mount Olympus.”

a finally showed up with her son Joseph in tow.

“Hello, Joseph,” Charlie said briskly. Triage was essential to Charlie's work, and Joseph didn't qualify for emergency treatment. He was a young-looking twelve-year-old, with light-brown skin; dark, curly hair; and long black lashes. He wore basketball shorts and high-tops. A heavy baseball glove swallowed his left hand.

“Hi,” he said. His smile was uncertain. He reminded Charlie of another child, the son of a mother she'd represented, the mother a drug addict, the son who'd missed months of school. That boy had never smiled, but, like Joseph, he had carried a baseball glove. A present from his missing father, the social worker had said, when the judge commented on the boy wearing the glove in court. Charlie remembered how the boy had refused to remove it.

“Your mother and I have to talk, so I'm going to ask you to wait in the lobby,” Charlie said.

Joseph smiled again but shook his head.

“He wants to stay here,” Va said. “He can't talk anyway.”

“He doesn't speak?” Charlie said. Hadn't he just said hello?

Va's shrug could have meant many things: he was dumb, he was troubled, he was scared, he wanted attention.
We don't have time for this
, thought Charlie.

“Sit here,” she said to Joseph, and moved a chair into the hallway. She went back into the conference room and took up her legal pad. The laptop was efficient, but the notepad was friendly. It built trust to let her clients see what she was writing. She wanted them to know that, to her, though at any given time she handled two hundred cases and more, the people she represented were more than numbered files. “I don't see how you manage the caseload,” Les often said, which Charlie knew meant, “I don't see why you stay in that awful job.”

“Now, Va,” she said, “let's go over your situation.”

She did not leave Manu in the car for very long, Va insisted. Her boyfriend had wanted to play
pai gow
poker at the card club. It was a Saturday night; they always partied on Saturday night, and Ela, her sister, usually watched the children. But Ela was busy and Joseph was at a friend's and Va figured that Manu would sleep because he was tired. She meant to leave him for fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes, tops. She had only wanted to say hello to her friends and party with her boyfriend and have a quick refreshment. They had rolled down the two front windows but didn't roll down the back ones so nobody could reach in and take him.

“The police report says you left him for over three hours.” An August night. Hot in the car, even after dark. A Good Samaritan had called the police around ten.

“Noo, noo,” Va said. She was a twenty-six-year-old Fijian-born woman in a bright print dress who lived in the southern part of the city. She had relatives in the area. Va had used to work for San Francisco Unified until budget cuts eliminated her aide position, but she had her own apartment in Section Eight housing, where she lived with Manu and Joseph. Charlie felt drab sitting across from Va and thought she might have something to learn from the younger woman's bright dress and unhurried movements, which showed how comfortable Va was in her large and beautiful body.

“Here is Manu,” Va said, showing Charlie a picture. In the photograph, Manu was squashed into a stroller. His feet dangled heavily, touching the pavement. Yellow grocery bags hung from the stroller's handles. Joseph stood beside, holding one handle and hoisting his baseball glove. Manu had darker skin and a broader nose and fuller lips than Joseph. Charlie knew from the file that Manu had a different father, and she wondered if he was black and whether that was frowned upon in Va's community, a Fijian woman with a black American man. Neither father paid child support. Va made a little money working as a home health aide.

“When will he come home?” Va asked. She had visitation rights but only at her sister's house. “Her children aren't very nice to Manu. They call him ‘black boy.' They eat all the treats I bring him.”

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