An American Dream by Frances Ippolito

Editor Sam Preminger, Fiction, July 23rd, 2020

"she sipped her steaming oolong tea as she watched Bobby “The Earthquake” McGee"

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Fiction by Frances Ippolito

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          Every Sunday, without fail, my Popo took the TV remote out from her hiding place and arranged herself primly on the plastic-covered couch. Wrapped in a floral dress, she sipped her steaming oolong tea as she watched Bobby “The Earthquake” McGee grapple the sweaty bodies of over-sized men on the ropes and mat of a darkly stained ring.

          One Sunday morning, I sat by Popo in the second best seat on the couch. The weather had turned cold early that year in the small town of Vermillion in South Dakota. In the mornings, a layer of lacy frost covered the inside of my window. The cold always made it hard for me to sit in the living room. My thick pants would slide against the surface of the plastic sheet, making distracting squeaking noises.

          Uncomfortable, I said to Popo, “Why do we keep the plastic on the couch? No one normal does.”

          Without looking at me, she answered, “Clean this way. Shh, eat. Bobby coming.”

          Next to me, Popo watched quietly, occasionally cracking salted roasted watermelon seeds between her front teeth. But before long, she began to chant “Size-Mik! Size-Mik!” in a restrained whisper that gradually escalated into loud shouting as Bobby “The Earthquake” McGee leapt off the ropes, becoming airborne like a naked fat bird, before landing heavily on the opponent’s prone body below.

          Growing up with my grandmother, I had seen an above average share of wrestling entertainment. To me, Bobby’s signature Seismic Earthquake lacked grace, form, and imagination; a demonstration of pure brute gravitational force, like dropping a large boulder on a caterpillar.

          Dissatisfied, I could not help but say, “Popo, it’s fake. They’re pretending.”

          Popo shook her head. “See blood. Real.”

          “It’s not.” I insisted, feeling an urgency to convince and correct her.

          “Talk too much.”

          I knew Popo believed earnestly that these men battled weekly for their honor, their women, and their right to wear large impractical belts. And, what did it matter? But, deep inside, I felt a nibbling shame that even after decades of being in America, my foreign-born grandmother didn’t know any better.

          “Why do you like him?” I asked her.

          Popo dipped her head down in front of the screen, a small smile forming shyly as if Bobby could see her through the pixels and that made her nervous.

          “He a good guy,” she said as the smile continued to tug at the edges of her thin pale red lips.

          I glanced back at the screen. Bobby stood by the announcer, the whole of his round, stout, dark body glistening with the perspiration of exertion.

          “Can Grizzly Gus take the title from you?” The announcer asked.

          Bobby growled deep, yanking the microphone out of the announcer’s hands.  “Grizzly Gus, where are you?! You want this?” Bobby slapped the platinum-colored, rhinestone-studded belt draped over his left shoulder. “Then come and get it! Come ride the Earthquake now.” He rolled his hips while making kissing noises from puckered lips.

          Repulsed, I leaned back. My eyes, however, continued to watch as Bobby’s curly black mullet lapped against the shoulders of his brawny, thick torso that, like the rest of the visible surface of his body, shimmered with the same crispy burnt caramel of a slow-roasted duck hanging in the window of a Chinese restaurant.

          Unimpressed, I turned to Popo to say as much. But the look on her face stopped me. Popo’s eyes gleamed with admiration and a faint dust of red appeared over her cheeks and nose. If I didn’t know better, I would have believed that Popo had a crush on him, or, at the very least thought he looked tasty.

          “I like Grizzly Gus better,” I blurted, wanting to interrupt this strange intimacy.

          Popo frowned, “Bad guy.”

          “Let’s watch something else.”

          She moved farther away me, clutching the remote control to her chest.

          “Tell me what they say,” she said, jabbing a finger at the screen, which now displayed a website.

          “Just a commercial for Battlemania tickets.”

          “Bobby come here?” Popo squinted harder.

          “Close. Sioux Falls.”

          With sudden urgency, Popo shoved her cell phone into my hand. “Gan-kuai, da qu.” Hurry, call them.

          “You want to go?”

          “Gan-kuai!”

          “Ok, sheesh. I’ll check prices.”

          “Cheap one!” Popo rose and paced nervously, running her hands through the tight raven curls of her permed pixie hair.

          When the webpage finally loaded, the red words “sold out” blinked under the seating chart for the Sioux Falls Convention Center.

          “Tickets are gone. Oh well.”

          “No more?” Popo spoke softly, almost a whisper.

          “You can watch it on tv,” I said harshly, but at the same time, I placed my hand lightly on top of Popo’s.

          Popo’s eyes remained averted, but her hand stayed beneath mine. Just then, the cell phone vibrated and a flashing pop-up came on the screen.

          “Wait, there are VIP tickets to meet Bobby,” I said, making the effort to sound cheerful.

          “How much?”

          “$500.”

          No way, I thought. Popo shopped at garage sales, haggled for 50% discounts on old pants, and refused to use the air conditioning.

          Yet, before my eyes, she grew taller, forcing her hunched, rounded upper back into a straightened rod. A resolute, hardened look settled firmly onto her face, her jaw clenched, tightening her skin and erasing years from the corners of her mouth.

          Though I’d never met her before, I instantly recognized her.  She who birthed seven children and buried three. A woman who clawed potatoes out of the packed clay earth with her bare hands to keep the breathing four alive and fed. The one who sold her house, her land, and all the belongings she couldn’t carry on her back to purchase passage across the vast sea, taking her children and abandoning her life for the vague promises of an unknown world she’d never seen.

          “Buy two. One for me and one for you,” this magnificent woman commanded as she handed me a checkbook.

          And, I did.

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          That night, Popo cooked a feast. Large plates of steamed flounder, pork belly, sautéed bok-choy, and sliced lotus root covered the kitchen table. In accompaniment, groups of tiny side dishes filled the gaps between the plates, like a scattered army of amuse bouche camping among mountains.

          “Eat. Hot now,” Popo said and she pinched slices of pork belly with her chopsticks, reaching across the table to deposit them on top of my bowl of rice.

          “Xie-xie,” I thanked her, but my chopsticks remained in my hands suspended above a tower of food, unmoving.

          Popo tapped the sides of her chopsticks against my bowl. “Too skinny. Are you anna-rex?”

          I pushed my bowl away from her reach. “It’s anorexia, and I’m not.”

          “The other one?” Popo stabbed a finger into her mouth.

          “Mei you!” No!

          Popo stared fixedly at me and bent in closer. “You don’t eat, not since you stop school–”

          I slammed my chopsticks on the table, cutting her off. Frowning, she stared at my chopsticks, her own paused in mid-transit to her mouth.

          “I’m fine,” I said, my voice strained. I didn’t want to talk about college or why I had left a month ago. Or why food tasted like dirt to me.

          Popo held my gaze for a long moment, but eventually shrugged and picked up a

          chunk of white flesh from the steamed flounder, which lay on its side from head to tail with parts of its spine exposed.

          “You drive me to Wai-gong after. Bring him dinner,” she said, her mouth open and chewing.

          “Popo, I only have a learner’s permit.”

          “Very close. Baba work late because of holiday.”

          “I need a licensed driver in the car.”

          “Me.” Popo pulled a driver’s license out of her pocket and held it out to me.

          I immediately observed two things: (1) the eight-year duration expired in two months; and (2) Popo appeared the same in all her photos: no smile, permed hair, and almost the same floral dress.

          “I have to ask dad.”

          “Tell him later.”

          The request to lie caught me off guard and I looked back at her, checking if I misunderstood. Popo avoided my eyes, poking at pickled radishes.

          “Use my car,” she said, placing a photo keychain on the table. Staring back at me were two girls about age 9 – myself, sporting blunt black bangs and a bowl cut, and Clara, the way she used to be, dark-brown permed hair, glasses, and gapped front teeth. I placed my hand over the keychain and turned it over, facedown.

          “If it doesn’t start, we can’t go,” I said finally.

          “Ok.”

          After dinner, Popo sat in the passenger seat with the food containers on her lap.

          I held my breath as I turned the key. The engine sputtered and faltered before roaring to life.

          “Ok, Popo,” I said with a deep sigh, “let’s go.”

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          People went to Vermillion Assisted Living Care to die. When my parents wheeled Wai-gong into his shared two-person room, I knew he would never come home. At least the nurses treated him well. They loved his child-like gentleness.

          In his room, Popo punched and pecked at the bed remote until the head portion of the bed raised Wai-gong to an inclined position. Awake and partially upright, he muttered to himself while tapping his hands repeatedly against his chest.

          “The box,” Popo requested and I reached up to the shelf and brought down a shoe box for her. She pried off the top, taking out a comb.

          “Yao-Xing, too messy,” she said as she ran the teeth gently through his white hair.

          After putting away the comb, Popo stepped over to the bedside tray and opened the food containers we brought. She poured broth into a bowl to soften the rice. Using the back of a metal spoon, she mashed pieces of fish into the porridge mixture. Then, she moved to the other side of the bed and sat down in the chair beside Wai-gong.

          “Lai, chi ba,” she told him while holding a filled spoon at his lips, waiting for him to open his mouth. He stared straight ahead, not looking at me by the doorway or at Popo by his side.

          “Like this. Ah. Ah.” Popo opened her mouth into an oval.

          “He’s doing better today,” the nurse told me in the hallway. “He sang us a song. We didn’t understand the words, but he seemed to remember it very well.”

          I nodded, but thought “better” was such as subjective, relative term. I hated coming here. The elderly filled the hallways, hauling themselves on wheelchairs down corridors by clawing, hand over hand, on the wooden rails mounted to the walls. This I could take, even the dense smell of feces and the communal crying, as long as Wai-gong recognized us. But, he never remembered me now and he seldom acknowledged Popo as his bride, wife, and life partner. As I expected, he ate very little. At this stage of his Alzheimer’s, Wai-gong’s muscle control faded more and more each week.

          When Popo finished tucking Wai-gong into bed, we walked back to the car in silence. As far as I knew, my parents had not included Popo in their discussions about grandpa’s treatment. Even so, Popo must have known that the slow wasting away happening before her eyes would only end one way.

          I told Popo about the singing. “Hushi shuo Wai-gong you chang ge.”

          “He marry me for my food,” she said simply, a non sequitur, but nevertheless one that I understood. As long as he ate, she accepted that he saw her in the tastes and flavors she delivered into his mouth. Now, nothing remained to remind him.

          Instead of driving directly home, I chose a longer route, weaving circles around neighboring cul-de-sacs. Not once did I say to Popo that I was lost because I wasn’t. And Popo sat silently the whole time, never asking why the half-mile drive home took an hour.

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          A week later, my father noticed the missing $1000.

          “You cannot go! You’re 80 and Xiao-Qi is a child,” he yelled at Popo. She sat at the kitchen table, her eyes closed and her head cradled in her palms. I stepped quickly across the room and stuffed myself into the corner space next to Popo.

          Baba snorted angrily at me – eyes hard, nose flaring wide. “I can’t believe you bought non-refundable tickets. I’m very disappointed in you.”

          “Baba, I can take care of her. You or mom can drop us off and pick us up.”

          “Bi zui.” Shut-up. “You can’t even take care of yourself. Quit college after all our hard work. Lazy like Americans. Too much snowflake, not enough Chinese.” Of course, he was right. I had given up and the sudden shame I felt made me feel small and useless.

          My mother stood silent behind Baba, red-faced, staring at Popo. “This is your fault. You spoil her,” she finally said. I studied my mother’s gaze unsure of which “her” she meant.

          “Ni you lai le.” You’re starting a fight again. He said to her.

          My mother shook her head. “You always take her side.”

          “What are you talking about? I told her that she can’t go.”

          “$1000 just gone!” My mother threw back.

          “We can resell the tickets.”

          But my mother tossed up her hands and laughed in his face. She stepped around him and grabbed my sleeve. “Xiao-Qi, come with me.”

          I followed my mother to her room, separate from my father’s. She closed the door behind us and pulled me down next to her on the bed.

          “I know this isn’t your fault. Your grandmother is,” she paused and crinkled her nose before continuing, “selfish. Your father, he does what she wants him to.”

          I disagreed, but stayed quiet.

          “His mother, his problem.” She sighed, placing her hands on my shoulders, lightly massaging them. “Xiao-Qi, you have to go back to school.”

          “They said I could do the rest of the semester from home, online.”

          “After New Year’s. Promise me you will go back. We work so hard for you. Seven days a week. Everyday fourteen hours. All for you to go to a good college, get good job, a better life than me.” My mother’s hands tightened on my shoulders.

          “I know, Mommy,” I said quietly, staring straight ahead.

          “Tell me why?” Her grip tightened more, almost too painful to bear.

          “I told you before.”

          “Because of Clara?”

          “Yes.”

          “You are getting older now. People die all the time. It’s already been a month since the funeral. Sad, but move on. Why does that mean you can’t go to school?”

          “Because I don’t know why. Why did she do it? She was smart, valedictorian, on varsity basketball, and coming to my college next year.”

          “Xiao-Qi –” My mother started to say, but I spoke over her. “Maybe if I had called her. But there was always so much work. I never had time. But, if I had been a better friend like when we were little – ” I choked on my spit and started to cough violently.

          “Stop!” My mom yelled. “It doesn’t matter. Something wrong with her brain.”

          “How can you be sure?” I looked into my mother’s eyes, yearning for some confirmation that I couldn’t have done anything.

          “Something wrong with her. Not like you.” My mother looked at me with tired eyes and patted me on the head, her hand landing so heavily that my teeth rattled. “Go study, you have midterms soon. I want all A’s this time. And remember, you promised me to go back after New Year’s.” She kissed me on the forehead.

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          On the day of Battlemania, hours before the start, I had fallen asleep on my bed while studying. When I woke, it was mid-day and I noticed that the room was darker than normal, an odd hazy gray making it hard for me to focus. I took a breath and coughed on burnt air. Smoke.

          Alarmed, I jumped out of bed and ran out into the hallway, crashing into the wall. “Popo? There’s smoke!” I shouted.

          “Here, in kitchen.” I heard Popo call back.

          Popo stood in front of the stove, eyes shut. Three lit incense sticks in her hands. She bowed a few times and stuck the sticks into a mug of raw rice.

          “Popo, what are you doing?! There’s smoke everywhere! Why didn’t you turn on the fan?” I stretched my arms over her head to flick on the switch. Suddenly, I shivered from the biting cold as frigid snowy air blasted into the house through the open kitchen windows.

          “I take care my family,” she said to three pairs of red silk baby booties, aged photos of people I didn’t recognize, and a green jade bracelet lined up on the backsplash behind the stove. Popo leaned down and thrust her hand into a black garbage bag. She pulled out piles of paper clothing – suits, dresses, coats, and even underwear. Each of these items she held over the gas burner, lighting the corners on fire, and holding the paper until the fire ate up to the edge of her fingertips. All around her, silver wisps of soot floated in the air, cycling in a vortex created by the blowing of the fan and the wind entering through the open windows.

          I’d done paper offerings to the dead before, but we did this outside in the summer.

          “Why are you burning inside the house?”

          “Too cold outside.”

          “Can’t this wait until when it’s not freezing outside?”

          “No,” Popo answered simply and reached inside her bag to pull out a stack of paper houses.

          “Burn for me.” She handed me the stack.

          “Then we have to stop. This is a fire hazard.”

          Nodding, she sat wearily on a stool, reaching behind to rub her back.

          After fluffing the paper houses back to some degree of standing, I placed one onto the burner and watched the flames devour the door, windows, roof, and walls. It was oddly soothing, observing the way things disappeared in a fire.

          “Popo, who are the people in this picture?” I pointed to a faded photo of an immense black man in an army uniform. He looked young, maybe in his early twenties, and his arm was around a petite pretty woman, with long black hair and a bright smile.

          “John and me.”

          “Whoa, Popo, you were really pretty. And you’re smiling!” I peered closer and recognized the same underlying form and eyes of my grandmother in the young woman.

          “John, my husband.”

          “What? Aren’t you married to Wai-gong?”

          “After John.”

          “Oh. When?”

          “Many years past. When I was sixteen.”

          Sixteen! Stunned, I stared at the photo, seeing how young Popo looked.

          “He come to Taiwan for one week.” Popo shut her eyes and looked like she was struggling to remember the details. “From Vietnam. For break. I forget word.”

          “Shore leave?”

          “Dui.” Right. “I saw him at the restaurant and he talked to me. We like each other. See each other every day. Secret.”

          “Popo! That’s so scandalous!” I chuckled lightly, tossing another house onto the burner.

          Popo shrugged. “I was very wild. My father find out and very mad. Say that I’m low class, cheap ‘good time girl’. But John mad too. He say he love me and we get married very fast. He told me he would send me letter. Send me money to go to America with him.”

          “Did he write you?”

          “No.”

          “So, he lied?” I exhaled the words slowly, barely breathing.

          “No.” She pointed to an envelope.

          I picked it up and pulled out a folded letter. As I read the words, tears stung my eyes.

          “He didn’t write you because he died.” Killed in a training accident.

          Popo nodded.

          “Oh, I’m sorry Popo! I didn’t know.” I hugged her, feeling just how frail and thin her bones were.

          “Long time ago. I met Wai-gong and he treat me very good. People tell him don’t marry me because of my shame. But he marry me and we work hard in restaurant and today, we have you.” Popo stroked my hair.

          “Do you miss him?”

          Popo studied her hands, opening and closing her fists several times before answering, “Yes. John said in America you can have a big dream like beautiful house, fast car, good job, and happy life.” Popo sighed. “I’m old now. I don’t need house, car, job, money. Now wait to die and join them – my children, parents, John.”

          I sensed a longing in her voice as her eyes drifted over the pictures and the baby shoes. And I began to panic. “You can’t go, Popo! I need you here.” The tears fell freely now and I had an overwhelming desire to throw myself at her feet and hold onto her legs.

          She patted my head. “You spend too much time home.”

          “I like it here with you.”

          “Why?”

          “I’m afraid.” I whispered.

          “Of school?”

          “Too much pressure. I’m tired.”

          “Don’t do so much.”

          “I need to do well and get a good job. I can’t disappoint Baba and Mama.”

          Popo placed her wrinkled hands on the sides of my face and placed her forehead against mine. “Xiao-Qi, you smart, work hard. Old enough, find your way.”

          And for some reason, receiving permission, gave me comfort. Enough for me to breathe a little more air and fill my lungs in that moment. I glanced back at the 16-year-old version of Popo, her smile so wide and happy. And as I looked, I saw something familiar and a suspicion formed.

          “Popo, why do you want to see Bobby?”

          Popo cackled loudly. “Look like John. Fat, happy good guy.” But her laughter died as she continued, “All fake. Play pretend, like you say.”

          I frowned at the way her voice waned into silence, slipping away from me again.

          I couldn’t lose her. “Popo, do you still have the car key?”

          Confusion filled Popo’s face. “To see Wai-gong?” She asked as she pulled the key out from her pocket and gave it to me.

          “No. Let’s go see Bobby.”

          She shook her head. “Baba said no.”

          I placed my hands on her shoulders. “We’ll tell him. After.” I smiled into her eyes and a grin grew on her face, almost as wide as the one in the photo, her eyes shining with wetness.

          “But, first, there’s something I want to do.” I put the keychain down next to the other photos. Clara and I faced out this time, gazing happily at the world. From the garbage bag, I pulled out a paper garden of flowers and assorted vegetables and fruits.

          “For Clara,” I said as I laid it across the burner and watched the flames curl around the flowers and the smoke dance and twirl in the air.

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Header image courtesy of Cristina Troufa. To view her Artist Feature, go here.

Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito is an emerging Chinese American writer in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not spending time with her children in the outdoors, she’s working on short stories with characters who reflect the diversity of the real world we live in. Her work was recently featured in the Ooligan Press Writers of Color Showcase 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

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Sam Preminger

Sam Preminger is a Portland-based poet. Their work has appeared throughout various publications and they hold an MFA from Pacific University.