My Bowl of Congee
Michael White | James Brown
It was quiet in the room when Mama came home. It was quiet because no one knew what to say and everyone knew exactly what needed to be said. But no one said anything—not a word.
My grandfather turned on the radio, old jazz sizzled out, and he sat in his chair, the same chair with the two shorter legs in back he sat in when she first left. It seemed to swallow him whole at times.
He said nothing. But he stared at Mama.
Mama was wearing a dark blue flight attendant’s outfit. Her hair was dolled up, she was skinnier than before, and inky-black lines ran down her cheeks. Grandmother stood beside her, staring—just staring. Thick spectacles hid her two little soggy eyes as she went to grab Mama’s luggage, which she did, which she always did because no one else ever would. She brought the small bag into Mama’s old room—my room now—and placed them at the feet of my bed. She had to move aside my toys and my creations to do so.
I didn’t like this. But then again I didn’t like much of anything anymore.
Grandmother waved through the doorway and into the hall for Mama to come and get her things together before bed. “I was to sleep on the couch,” she said. I was to get my toys and my creations together—along with my dark blue blanket and my inky-black pillow—and then move into the living room where my grandfather was still sitting and staring. When I got there the jazz had ended, and only empty feedback remained. My grandfather didn’t seem to notice, so I turned the radio off and lay down with the lights on.
Grandmother came in shortly after to tuck me under, read me a story about an old boy in China who was tortured to death in front of a cheering crowd, and then say her goodnights to my grandfather and me before retreating into the hollow hallway and eventually her room. It was nice to have my grandfather there and the lights on and both Mama and Grandmother nestled somewhere within the house. It all helped me sleep better.
When I awoke in the early morning, I looked up at my grandfather’s chair with watery eyes and some weird itch on my groin and I saw my grandfather. He was still there, had not left from his chair the whole night. And he was smiling.
“Good morning, Gong-Gong,” I said.
“Your mother left,” he said.
Grandmother was already up and going. By the time I was ready to do the same, she was there before me with a bowl of congee and several shards of pork mixed in. I thanked her and ate and said nothing—not a word. Even though I felt like everything around me was dead, was dead, was dead.