By Archy Jamjun
I can’t remember her voice. I close my eyes but no matter how I search my memory, I can only remember Na Thoy’s smile. I remember it most from the day I got lost at Carson Prairie Scott.
“What is her name?” the sales lady asked me. She had a heavy German accent I found reassuring.
“Na Thoy,” I said.
“And that’s your mom?” she asked. I was dumbstruck. At five, I assumed that everyone knew the title “Na” meant Na Thoy was my mother’s younger sibling. Five minutes after my aunt’s name was announced over the PA system, she walked into the toy section I had wandered into.
“Charlie, what have I told you about walking off by yourself?” She exaggerated her eyebrows to act like she was mad, but she was never really capable of being angry at me.
I set my eyes on the soft-but-thin red carpeting. “It just happens.”
“You could get very hurt one day. Someone could kidnap you. Do you have any idea how cute you are?”
I looked up, and she smiled her smile in that plush face with her eyes like whole almonds while the rest of us dealt with slivers and halves. Like my mother, my aunt seemed to love me more than she loved my sister, and also like my mother she believed love was a competition. Every now and then she’d ask, “Which aunt do you love the most? Me or your Bah Thow?”
Bah Thow, my dad’s older sister, lived on the other side of the world in Thailand and I only knew her, from a picture on a shelf, as a stern-faced woman in a school principal’s uniform. Na Thoy was twenty-six, lived fifteen minutes away, and her favorite outfit was Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls with a Sesame Street polo.
“You’re my favorite! Now who do you love better, Agnes or me?” I’d ask.
“Charlie, you’re my favorite boy in the whole universe!” Then she’d laugh, point her eyeballs towards my sister, and wink at me.
A few times a month, my mother would drop Agnes and me off at Na Thoy’s apartment, a high-rise in Edgewater that she shared with another Thai nurse. My mom would then go shopping at Marshall Field’s without the cacophony of demands my sister and I made. Na Thoy’s round face would purse when I asked and then relent as I begged her to add a teaspoon of sugar into my fried rice. She’d then mix it back up and put it in the microwave. Forty-five seconds later, an irresistible bowl of sweetened hot dog and ketchup fried rice would be placed in my hands, and I’d run toward the carpet between her coffee table and television. She’d tell me to slow down, and for the last five steps, I’d move in slow motion.
“Don’t even think of touching the remote,” Agnes would say before my butt touched the ground. “I’m watching The Young and the Restless.”
I sat down and began eating my rice. I felt sorry for Agnes because while she was pretty and talkative, I was what mattered most: the baby of the family. She’d been aware of my advantage from an early age and had tried to roll me down the stairs when I was born. To keep the peace and remain physically-abled, I often gave into her bossy demeanor, but every time I was too nice and gave in too much to Agnes’s demands, my mother would say, “Jai Awn, just like your aunt.” Jai Awn means you’re a sweet spirit but also an oversensitive pushover who can’t deal with conflict.
Na Thoy, three years younger than my mom, was the second of four. And even though Na Thoy was a capable, ESL-proficient adult when she arrived with a nursing visa, my mother was responsible for her. With a sense of duty that my mom developed as poor girl selling mangoes in a market while simultaneously watching over her siblings, she quickly installed Na Thoy into a nursing position at her employer, Weiss Memorial Hospital. My mother then explained the breakdown of the nursing staff while we drove her home after her first orientation, “Be nice to the black and white people but don’t get too close. The Filipinos still think they’re in a war, like the Vietnamese.”
I looked at Agnes while we sat in the back. She watched my mom, who shifted her view from the street to my aunt every five seconds. “The Indian nurses are greedy and make the employee kitchen stink. The Russians are fun but always drunk. Work the holidays.”
“What is drunk?” I asked Agnes.
“It’s when you drink stuff to make you happy but then you throw up and cry,” she whispered back.
“How do you know that?”
“The Young and the Restless.”
Although my mother micromanaged my aunt, I never saw them fight, and my mother would purposely point out all the things she did for my aunt in hopes that Agnes and I would see how siblings were supposed to act. Once after a trip to the Venture Superstore, my mother turned to Agnes and said, “See, I bought Na Thoy these winter gloves because she has not experienced winter before. See how a big sister looks out for her younger siblings?” The next day my sister interpreted this as only Agnes could and convinced me to help her review her fourth grade school work.
“Charlie, why are you folding Agnes’ laundry?” my mother asked, surprised to see me alone yet alive in Agnes’s room.
“Agnes is teaching me about slavery. This is her plantation and I get to work inside because I have light skin. It’s called history.” It hadn’t even been her homework; she’d snuck out of her room the night before and watched an episode of Roots on cable.
A little more than a year after moving to Chicago, Na Thoy had found someone to marry. Yongyuth was handsome. He had shiny black hair and soft, baby skin. His smell combined talcum powder and Old Spice. He was so handsome that even at six I took advantage of the opportunities I had to hug him. I’d never seen a romance before and watching my aunt and Yongyuth glance at each other during their wedding, I understood one thing: I wanted to be loved like that. One day I wanted a Yongyuth to look me in the eyes while he held my hand in front of everyone we knew and jibber-jabbered words while I cried but stayed pretty. I took flowers from the basket Agnes told me to hold for her and crunched them in my fingers. As the ceremony ended, my mother instructed me to give the basket back to Agnes so we could take pictures, but I had bonded with the petals.
“I am the flower boy!” I screamed, slamming my hand onto a rented chair and holding the basket behind my back.
“Charlie, you were the ring bearer. Agnes was the flower girl,” my mother said.
I gritted a couple loose baby teeth. “Flower boy.”
“Noot, just let them alternate,” my aunt declared from her posed position, and so we took two sets of pictures as Agnes and I swapped roles. Later that evening, as the wedding winded down, I held on to Na Thoy’s thigh through her satin white dress as she slow danced with Yongyuth. She said she was leaving to go on their honeymoon. I imagined them in a spaceship and thought marriage was the best thing in the world.
Four months in, Na Thoy was seven months pregnant. Since my mother was a neonatal nurse, she set up camp on Na Thoy’s shoulder. Each day after work, Na Thoy would come over until Yongyuth came from his job as a banker to pick her up around 9:00 pm. Feeding Na Thoy took priority over even Agnes and me. During this time, my mother would buy a dozen Whoppers at Burger King on Mondays because they were buy one get one free. For the rest of the week, our family ate Whopper after Whopper.
“You cannot feed your son and daughter hamburgers every night,” my dad declared. “I cannot eat microwaved Whoppers every night of the week.” My father stood up from the dining table as nuclear steam rose off his aged beef patty and mayonnaise-drenched LTO.
“They’re your kids too. You feed them and feed yourself.” My mother walked right past him. “You are a grown man. Her husband is working late every night. I have to take care of her.”
As my father took over, Agnes and I ate his favorite take-out selections: duck, pork belly, and Chinese broccoli from the BBQ shops on Argyle Street or gyros and ribs with fries, garlic bread and coleslaw from East of Edens, a Greek joint two blocks from our house.
Late in the pregnancy, my mom and Na Thoy returned from the hospital, and as usual Na Thoy sat on our tan sectional in the basement while I sat near her feet. Thirty minutes later, my mother brought down a tray of food and pointed out the different items and their purposes. “The butternut squash is good for your stretch marks. It also has fiber for your constipation. The mackerel has omega fatty acids which are…”
“Noot,” her little sister said with a patience she probably acquired decades ago, “I’m a nurse too. I understand food.”
“The milk is for calcium,” my mom replied holding the glass up for her to drink. “Make sure you take a sip after every few bites. Girls need their calcium.” My mom poked my aunt in the belly before smiling. “I’m going to go change.”
Na Thoy looked around her belly and asked me, “Charlie, do you know what your name means?”
“Charlie means warrior!” I shot up and put one fist onto my hip and one into the air.
“No, not your American name, your Thai name, I.”
“I” was my Thai name, the name my family called me in front of other Thai people or whenever a situation called for more ethnic flair. I didn’t know what it meant.
“‘I’ means oldest brother and soon that’s going to be true. You won’t be the baby of the family anymore.” I had mixed feelings about this proposition. “Today I learned the baby is going to be a girl so you’re going to have not just a cousin, but more like a little sister.” This was an idea I could get behind. Agnes would have a rival, a younger one at that.
“I love her already,” I said, wrapping her stomach in my arms as if it were the world. “What’s her name?”
“I don’t know yet. Your mom gave Agnes the name I’ve wanted to give my daughter since I was a kid.” She rolled her neck back to stretch it. “She’s probably already decided for me anyway.”
“What does Agnes mean?”
“I don’t know what Agnes means but her Thai name, ‘Uear,’” my aunt went on, “is from a fairy tale. It’s about a mother who dies but refuses to go to heaven because she loves her daughter so much that she cannot leave her. God allows her to come back to Earth as a fish in her daughter’s pond, and every day the daughter feeds the fish, not knowing it’s her mother watching over her but always wondering why this fish stays nears the dangers of the surface and never in the safety of the depths.”
“That is scary!” I slapped her knee.
“No, it’s about how much mommies love their babies.”
“It’s about ghosts!”
My mother sat on the side of my bed. Her face was soaked in tears. She cradled me yet she didn’t have control over her own body. She held on to me so intensely I couldn’t breathe, not because she was smothering me but because this was a version of my mother I did not know. She tried to produce words but the only sounds that found their way out were collections of vowels. The wet warmth of her tears and saliva began to collect at my cowlick, and I grabbed for my blue teddy bear. Agnes sat on the other side of her, my mother’s shoulder eventually pressing into the comfort of her daughter’s side. We stared at our father as he stood by.
“Agnes, Charlie… Na Thoy has died.” I heard the words and connected them to my mother’s state, but I didn’t understand much else.
“What about the baby?” Agnes asked.
“There’s no more baby,” my dad replied, unable to look at either of us.
I didn’t understand how there couldn’t be a baby anymore, but I could not take my focus off my mother as she began to shake even harder. Her sobs and voice began to reach deep notes that were not in her former range. Agnes joined her with her own tears so my father lifted her into his arms as if she was the baby who never made it to life. He cried tears I didn’t know fathers possessed as I held on to my bear. My mother unable to sit up any longer curled into my bed. We watched her for a while unsure of what to do but unwilling to leave her alone. Eventually she stopped crying and simply took sharp breaths as her eyes fell shut. My father led Agnes and me to sleep in my sister’s room, but I snuck back out to make sure my mom was still breathing. My father had cradled himself around her. They were both in fetal position with her eyes closed and his staring at the ceiling.
My grandmother flew in and chain-smoked at our kitchen table. She was statuesque and with her attire, she could have fit into a Parisian landscape. Once you looked closely, however, you saw how pale she was and how sleep had abandoned her. She prayed shaking a fist full of burning incense that filled the house with sandalwood. She wandered the house at night bumping into corners and furniture. My mother made her dishes she barely ate. The day she arrived Agnes and I stood by as she sat in our La-Z-Boy, and she showed us her hand. It was glossy because a lighter had exploded in it decades ago.
“And you still smoke?!” I asked. She didn’t understand me so I had Agnes translate my question into Thai.
“Chai mai dai,” my grandmother replied.
“She can’t help it,” Agnes explained. For the first couple days, as I did with my father, I chased my grandmother around with a water gun whenever I caught her smoking. She put up with it a few times but then she yelled at me while pointing her scarred hand at me. I left her alone after that.
At the funeral, when Na Thoy lay in a casket on the same temple stage where children performed for their parents, I became convinced that everyone had lied. Na Thoy was right there! “Dead” did not mean people went away! “Dead” did not mean you never saw them again! Na Thoy was right there and people were talking to her. I ran up to the casket. I shouted her name but she didn’t respond. I waved my hands in front of her face but she didn’t open her eyes. I touched her face. It was like touching drywall. Her cheeks did not give. Her lips left my fingers dry. When I touched her I didn’t recognize her, and I realized what dead meant.
A woman I didn’t know chided me for touching my aunt, and my mother, who had been watching me from ten feet away, stormed up to her.
“Don’t tell him not to touch his aunt!” My mother was angry at first but calmed down enough to continue. “See how much he loves her. He’s not even scared to touch her.” My mother pulled me close and led us to our chairs. Five monks gathered on the side of the stage and began chanting and then my grandmother went onto the stage. She got on her knees and prayed as we learned to in Sunday school but she did so with a heaving back and instead of her forehead briefly touching the floor three times, the side of her face hit it on the third bow and stayed there. Her right side followed and she stayed there as the sound of her wails drowned out the chanting monks. Eventually my father walked onto the stage and escorted her off. As my grandmother’s black leather heels left the carpet of the stage and hit the tiled floor, it became official: my grandmother had one less daughter; my mom lost her favorite sister. Agnes and I lost the only aunt we knew, and the baby had no one to mourn her.
We didn’t talk about Na Thoy’s death again until weeks later, after my grandmother went back to Thailand and after Yongyuth’s visits became infrequent. It was a Sunday evening and we had just returned from Sunday school at the temple. As we were watching TV, Agnes told my parents a monk had joined her class and said Na Thoy had killed herself and that was the wrong thing to do.
“Who said that?” my father asked, jerking his head at Agnes as America’s Funniest Home Videos went to commercial.
Agnes replied that the head monk had come into her classroom and talked about death and suicide. “There is always someone to turn to if you feel that way,” Agnes explained. Na Thoy’s gum, or karma, the monk said, was not going to be good.
My mother turned toward Agnes as if Agnes was the monk, and I cowered at the expression on my mom’s face. “She had me to turn to. She had me to talk to. She didn’t kill herself because she had no one to talk to. She killed herself because her baby died.”
“Mommy,” my dad tried, “They’re too young.” My mother stopped looking at Agnes and looked at no one in particular.
“Save the baby, let me die. Take care of the baby when I die,” my mother confessed some of my aunt’s last words, and then told us, “I cannot stop hearing it.” As she looked for a face that would understand, I crawled into the space between the sofa and the lazy boy to hide under a blanket with my face peeking out. “When she woke up in the hospital bed, I could already see that she is not the same person. She put her hands on her stomach and screamed. She would not let go. But I didn’t know she was going to kill herself when she got home.” My mother took a plate that had been sitting on the living room table and heaved it at the floor where it bounced on the carpet. “They want to blame me?” She sent a fruit bowl into the wall and I pulled the blanket tighter over my head. “Okay, it’s my fault!” She began to hit herself with her fists on the side of her head. “I was wrong. I’m a bad sister, a bad mother!” She picked up a glass and was about to smash it over her head. “I should know that when people ask to be alone, they are going to kill themselves!”
“Mom,” Agnes pleaded in tears.
“Noot!” my dad screamed loud enough to bring my mother back, and then he lowered his voice so that it was inviting. “Come on. Let me take you to the bedroom.” I watched with my right eye as my mother looked around like she’d been somewhere else and undid her fists.
“This monk… has nothing better to do than tell my daughter her aunt was a bad person?” My father carefully led her down their wing. “What does he know about how much Thoy loved her baby?”
“Agnes, Charlie,” my dad looked back at us, “don’t move until I clean this up.”
I peeked out from my nook and saw that Agnes was still crying. I looked at the TV and saw a fat person crash down a Slip ‘N Slide.
When my father returned, he cleaned up the mess. First he used his hands to pick up the big pieces. Then he tried a broom and a dust pan. Finally he got the vacuum out of the closet. We remained still during all of this. After he was done, he sat down next to Agnes.
“Agnes, your mom did not mean to yell at you. You have to forgive her. Can you imagine if Charlie died, how would you feel?”
“Sad?” Agnes answered.
The studio audience responded with laughter.
“Your aunt,” my dad explained to my sister as I listened, “died because of sadness. She lost her baby and then she became too sad. It wasn’t her fault. She went to find her baby.”
“The monk said she took too much medicine on purpose,” Agnes replied. I remembered seeing pill bottles in Na Thoy’s bathroom and wondered which one made her die.
“Monks are smart, but they don’t know everything. They don’t have their own family or children. They don’t have that experience.”
Bob Saget returned to announce the finalists. We watched, in silence, as a man fell off a fence, a monkey grabbed a woman’s wig, and a dog bit a child on the butt. I crawled out of my spot and rested the back of my head on my dad’s left leg as my sister huddled herself into the right side of his midsection. We watched as the boy who’d been bitten by the dog won ten thousand dollars and began jumping up and down. His mother held the mid-sized dog, which was frantically trying to lick her face, and his father beamed in denim and a mustache.
“Agnes,” I said.
“You better be sad if I die.”
“Well, that could happen anytime.”
“Mom says you’re just like Na Thoy. You could die whenever.”
Archy Jamjun is a writer and storyteller from Chicago. He received his BA in English Literature from The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and also completed the writing program at Chicago’s Second City Training Center. He is the 2015 winner of The Moth Grandslam in Chicago and the 2014 Chicago’s Biggest Liar Contest. His work has been published by Story Club Magazine, the blog Drinkers with Writing Problems, and Oyez Review, Roosevelt University’s Literary Magazine. Archy is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University.