pages The Good Night

by Tristen Chang

Published in Issue No. 168 ~ May, 2011

A man broke into our home when I was six.

It was a school night, I remember because we didn’t have to go the next day. My mom took a half-day off of work and took us to the park to share a box of Cracker Jack, pulled us into her lap and set her chin between our shoulders, her cheeks between our ears. She asked us if we were awake or remembered anything about the man who came and left through our bedroom window, we shook our heads and made duck calls with blades of grass between our palms.

But I heard his bare hands against our single-pane locked window, palms flat and shifting to the side. He tipped the entire thing out of its frame in the wall, leaving a naked opening, without runners or tracks or locks or even siding. I lay on the bottom half of a trundle, my brother next to me, asleep in the top bed.

He was tall enough to step through the window. I kept my eyes nearly closed, peering through the fuzzy bottom slit of my eyelids. He wore a dark hooded sweatshirt and baggy pants, something over his face but I couldn’t tell what. He looked at my brother and I, took a step toward our beds, then went out the bedroom door and into the living room. I heard him say “Awww, shit” and hit something, hard.

Later I would be told that he took nothing but my mom’s laundry money and Tupperware. I would hear that my mother waited behind her open door with the floor lamp raised over her head, that the police got lost in our apartment complex and couldn’t find our building. I would be told that he was probably on drugs, or insane, or my father, and my mother would sell her jewelry and furniture to move us into a house by the end of the next week.

I heard him walking into things. I heard something drop and shatter, I heard running water, and cupboards. I heard him open the door to the bathroom and I heard the hinges of my mom’s door, then something soft but heavy hit the floor.

The next day, the neighbors would congratulate my mother and offer to bring her dinner or help her pack. The other single mother across from us would tell of the man that held a gun to her chin until he was startled by his own reflection in the sliding glass door, then shuddered and handed her the gun. The woman I called “Abuelita” even though she wasn’t my grandmother would tell me I had been a ninja in my past life. At school, the teachers let my brother sit with me in my classroom, let us both read side-by-side and hold hands if we wanted to.

He came back into our room wearing a blanket as a cape. He stood in the doorway, a green plastic bowl under his arm with all of our laundry money for the next week secured under the lid. He took a step forward and I saw my mother behind him, choking up on the shaft of the floor lamp like she taught us to do on a bat. Her expression was more grass-whisper than storm, her hands both the weapon and the means. He held the bowl in both hands and I wondered what he could possibly want from us, from a girl who pulled her bed out from underneath her brother’s every night and slept below him even though she was older and a boy who helped her push it back under every morning and a mother who woke up early and didn’t waste time on make-up so she could cut apples and oranges into a bowl in the middle of the table and talk to her children as they all rubbed their eyes over cold cereal. That maybe he envied us our morning love, and didn’t mind that we packed our lunches in old produce bags and washed aluminum foil to re-wrap around our carrots and celery sticks, that this and the Tupperware and the six dollars in quarters and maybe the cobija he wore over his shoulders was all he wanted to take from us, but my mother, my mother with her grandmother’s lamp raised in the hands that combed my hair, would not let him, would not scream but would plow the base into the back of his head if he took one step closer, would step when he did, kick my brother and I under the top trundle bed and keep swinging.

He shrugged the blanket off his shoulders, leaned over me and covered me with the cobija. He smoothed the wrinkles from the corners of my bed and stood up, reached to touch my forehead but changed his mind and dropped his hand.

“Goodnight,” he said.

And then he turned and stepped back out our bedroom window, my mother still holding the lamp with both hands.

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Tristen was born in Woodland, California and received her MA in English from UC Davis. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches creative writing at the Palo Alto Adult School.

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