Digging to Freedom

by Meg Tuite

Iwas forced to dig long after the others had given up. My next-door neighbor, Ellen, set up a lemonade stand after little more than an hour or two of labor. She was already on to the next enterprise. My adventure wasn't going to accumulate any cash and it was all about bringing in the coins to spend at Brandy's candy store and what Ellen could stuff in her mouth all summer. Bernard dragged out his dad's snow shovel from across the street, useless and rusted. He spent most of his time circling the parameter with a thick piece of blue chalk. "You need to have boundaries. There's no plan here. We need to have a designated area," he said as he scraped away at the ground to get the blue to permeate, but his whining didn't help with the slow progress I was making. My brother, Curtis, called me a boil bubbling on the ass of the family intellect and sat on the back steps with the atlas and an encyclopedia. He had unlimited time to explain to me why this was complete and utter stupidity. "Most of the earth is molten iron. Good luck with your shovel, freakazoid. And besides, China and the US are in the northern hemisphere. If it was actually possible to dig all the way through the earth, which it's NOT, you'd end up in the Indian Ocean, swimming for your life. Now I'd give back my entire allowance from the last year to witness that."

I knew there was something not quite right about where I'd been situated. My mom was loathe to come out of the house and hated children. She was the only one even remotely like me. I detested most kids as well and she had cluster headaches almost every afternoon that seemed to follow the pattern of the ghetto of pimples that exploded over my face, imperishable breathing things that I was sure had heartbeats that I could see vibrating across my scorched skin. Dad was the guy who left early and arrived home late, asked about our homework without listening to our mumblings, before retreating to the TV with his dinner to succumb to the latest basketball, football or baseball game depending on the season. And there was my older brother, Curtis the Cretin, an over-achiever with insufferable amounts of random facts that spewed out of him like a talk radio show that went 24 hours, seven days a week.

My suspicions were verified when I surveyed the group snapshots in our photo albums. Daddy Long legs hovered over us with his Q-tip head and bloody red cotton ball hair. Mom, a mawkish blast of an orange coif that cemented her brain stood beside him. Corpulent yawning-cavern-of-a-mouth Curtis was the offspring of these recessive genes, bludgeoned with apricot hair, blue eyes and freckles closeting them together like dot-to-dot coloring books that turned some random blob into a family of sunless creatures. And then there was me. The black demon that stopped mom from procreating, as Curtis introduced me to anyone he could. I was black hair with black eyes.

I managed to find my people every Friday night when dad took the family out. Tien Tsen was the only Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood. I looked intently at the waiter when he asked what I wanted. The guy was dense. I wanted him to take me back to the country I came from. No matter how long I stared, he never linked our obvious ancestral connection.

One night after about a month of digging I snuck out to the back yard after midnight. The abyss, by now, was way beyond the overblown toilet bowl of the Grand Canyon. It was August in Chicago. I had a few more weeks before school started. The pressure was on. I worked for hours with that splash of a sliver of moon overhead until I spiked in another monstrous shovel full of dirt with my eyes half closed and almost toppled forward into the trench. There was nothing belting me back for once. My eyes became half the size of my face. I had done it. I found myself looking down into the opposite end of the globe. China. It was daylight there and people were everywhere on the street. They had long black braids and wore silk pajamas just like the ones I got from Chinatown and slept in every night. People bicycled and ran around with hands stacked in their sleeves bowing and smiling at one another with a happiness I never saw from our neighbors. Ellen barely gave me a nod at school, unless she needed to copy my homework. There was deep respect here and my body naturally hollowed in toward a bow at all times. Especially when digging.

I already had my blue silk pajamas with butterflies flapping across it in reds and yellows on and sported my Nikes. This would be as exciting as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Take it step-by-step to climb through to the other side. I had dug myself a serious ladder to freedom. I clung to rocks and staggered my way down revisiting what words I knew in Chinese.

When my gym shoes finally hit the asphalt I slammed into a woman rushing past. She bowed and her words were soft, quick beats like scrambled eggs. I bowed back saying, "Moo-shu beef, King Pao's chicken." She clasped my hand and started dragging me down the street. My favorite book as a kid was "Are You My Mother?' by Dr. Seuss. I knew nothing came easy, especially a mom. Maybe this lady was an aunt or cousin. I hoped I didn't have any obnoxious brothers here, as well.

The woman was smooth as a skier gliding without the equipment, whisking us through streets and neighborhoods for what seemed like forever. My Nikes were good, but I was wearing down. She kept talking to me like the landscape, up and down and all around. She didn't care that I didn't understand a word. She seemed more determined than I had to get us somewhere. When we finally stopped, it was in front of a restaurant that looked surprisingly like Tien Tsen. I saw the picture of Moo Shu beef and was smiling now, nodding my head. I was starving.

When we got inside I felt that soft swoon of air conditioning. Tables were filled with families. I watched them fumble with chopsticks like our family did. I studied the freckled, ghostly faces at every booth. They all had a replay image of the same girl, boy, mom and dad. It was a disturbing ghetto of a room here in the land of the exotic, emancipated beauty outside. Dads were redheads attached to stick bodies. Moms were powdery with dyed orange football shaped coifs, saying things like, "Curtis, stop pestering your sister," and "we can live without knowing how many geysers Iceland had last year." Every one of those mothers looked at the eleven-year-old girl with a long, fat crimson orange braid and said, "Put down that book, young lady, right now and finish the rest of your dinner. You can read when you get home. Money doesn't grow on trees, and certainly not on bonsai trees."

Orange father looked over at orange mother and laughed.

Orange boy shook his head, rolled his eyes. "Bonsai's are Japanese, not Chinese." He smacked his forehead with his hand. "How did I get stuck in this idiotic family?" he hissed.

Orange father grabbed orange mother's hand and squeezed. I grimaced and closed my book.

The waiter arrived to take their order. Orange sister didn't even look up at him when she pointed to the photo of  "Moo-shu Beef" on page two of the menu. She knew he was already on to her. She was going home in the family station wagon just like every other Friday. And she wasn't going to do anymore digging tonight.

BIO: Meg Tuite's writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press, author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press, Reverberations (2012) Deadly Chaps Press, Implosion and other stories (2013) Sententia Books and has edited and co-authored The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011, stories from her monthly column, Exquisite Quartet published in Used Furniture Review. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.