Mott Street in July

Xuan Juliana Wang

Above their sleeping heads hung the wedding photo. It had hung there before any of the children were even born. Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy would sleep in a row, pressed up against Mama’s soft warmth. The spot on the bed closest to the door was left empty, so that whenever he got home the children wouldn’t stir. That was their baba, of course.

There they were, Mama and Baba, a part of history. It was still the good part. Mama in a red dress, her hair shiny and voluminous, her lips the color of jewels. With a curl above his brow and the wedding studio’s white suit on, that was the happiest Baba had ever looked. He never smiled like that in real life.

The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of 24 Mott Street. Mama and Baba with two boys and a baby girl, who started out as toddlers at the Catholic preschool on Mosco Street. As they grew taller, they walked past the screaming babies on their way to elementary school and looked down their noses at those maniacs. Each morning they stood beside the deep kitchen sink that they had once bathed in, tickling one another with their elbows and squishing toothpaste foam between their toes. If the telephone on top of the fridge rang, the tangled cord stretched over their wet heads and together they screamed with fear and delight at the thought of being electrocuted.

Each afternoon Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy walked the path through Roosevelt Park, leaning on the partition to watch the kites go up over the shrubs on Forsyth. It did not yet boggle their minds that the insides of those things that fly also look like the insides of those that swim. They had yet to question why the bones of a fish could look like the bones of a kite. They had not known to wonder how far to look back in history for the connection. Instead, the three children raced up the stairs to the window to count the black cars that lined Mosco Street for funerals four times a week, because Pinetree said that the more black cars there were, the more that dead person was loved.

These streets held their first universe. Under this patch of sky, where melting ice slid over the sidewalks and cars competed for space with supermarket carts teetering with recycling, that was all there was.

It went on this way for a long time, until the children got their first bunk beds and their world stretched upward to the brass ceiling tiles. When he turned thirteen, Walnut wordlessly installed a curtain across the room with his disproportionately large hands. From then on, the children no longer saw Mama and Baba before they drifted off to sleep.

But in the years when all five slept on the same pieced-together bed, in the same room, Lucy would often wake in the dark to see Baba climbing under the covers beside Mama, and she guessed that that was the reason why it was she and not her brothers who felt closest to him.

As their bodies grew larger, the empty space around them grew thick and heavy with riches they brought inside to make theirs. Blue jeans, comic books, two computers, and a stuffed dog that told jokes. Walnut helped Baba make room for a wardrobe that would partly block the doorway to the bedroom, so that they had to turn sideways in order to walk through. There was nowhere for clothes to disappear to, except for when they were drying, which was done either out on the fire escape or up on the black tar roof. Old bricks held on to the nails that carried their washcloths, flyswatters, and supermarket calendars, as well as the antenna that allowed the television to see all the way to China.

The front door began to stay open, to let fresh air flow through the hallways, past the neon-colored bins where they kept their meager treasures, day after day, until the plastic lost its brightness.

Soon there wasn’t enough room for all of them inside, and Lucy took her time studying the tiny cardboard iPhones and sports cars in the funeral parlor’s windows, before she walked past Mama, who played poker with the other ladies on the corner of Mulberry and Bayard, under the lights of the twenty-four-hour parking lot. Whenever one of them entered the apartment, they avoided the others’ eyes as a courtesy. Walnut was always chatting on his laptop, and even though he would have liked to be outside, Pinetree didn’t have a fixie bike or a skateboard, so eventually he had to do what Walnut did and play on another laptop. Then Walnut got glasses, Pinetree broke his wrist, Lucy needed braces, and Baba had to take a second job at a mechanics shop deep enough into Brooklyn that they never saw him.

That was the year they started calling him “Dad.”

Dad lifted weights at the YMCA, wore a thick gold chain around his neck, and started drinking beer in big glass bottles instead of in cans. He stopped sitting down to the broths and steamed fish that Mom cooked on the stove and would instead lie on the bottom bunk in front of the television with a white Styrofoam container of BBQ duck rice balanced on his chest.

He ate quickly, his hands blackened from soot, not speaking to them even if they asked him a question. He snapped at them for any reason, as if they were somehow mysteriously to blame for his aching back. Lucy’s brothers didn’t know how to receive Dad’s affections, so they stopped trying to earn them. But while Walnut faced his computer in silence and Pinetree flipped through basketball comics, Lucy studied Dad until he told her to stop. His arms had gotten more tanned and even more muscular. If she and her brothers were changing with each passing day, then her parents must be as well, and even if no one would tell her why, she wanted to know how. She alone searched for the opening into the concealed passageways that wound through each of her parents’ hearts, into the things they didn’t tell her about.

After all, it was Lucy who noticed the tattoo of a black and red carp that had grown across Dad’s lower belly, the flickering fish tail peeking out from beneath the hem of his white shirt. Lucy imagined the carp swimming across her father’s belly when he turned in his sleep, moving up to his chest to feed on his snores. Maybe the red scales leaped out when Dad was feeling brave and dove deep into his heart if he was ever afraid.

The fish was born on Dad’s belly in May. Then it became June, and all reports forecasted the hottest summer on record. One humid day led to another, then another. Before the televised fireworks on the Fourth of July, the Asian carp crisis was announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On the news, reporters on the scene described the carp as roughly the size of dolphins and some that had grown to be the size of economy sedans.

“Like pigs, the Asian carp root around in the dirt for food,” said a Michigan senator to the press. “It’s not just that they’re muddying our scenic lakes, but they’re damaging the integrity of the bio composition of American waters by causing loss of vegetation and agricultural runoff.”

Discomforting close-ups of the carps’ giant mouths swallowing air above the water played on a loop. Since Asian carp had no natural predators, the reporters went on to explain, they ate all the other fish, as well as the turtles on the bank. . . . They ate the frogs and the birds, too, if they got close enough to the water. . . . And they ate a few adorable dogs right off a dock!

Destroyed leisure boats.

Killed heritage waterfowl.

Leaped onto the decks of ferries and terrorized innocent passengers.

When pressed to share the committee’s possible solutions, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said with a sad shake of his head, “I wish I could ask our Americans to eat our way out of this mess, but who’s going to want to eat such bony fish! I mean how much gefilte fish can one nation really make?”

The most charismatic spokesperson of the anti-fish movement was a retired Great Lakes police officer. “I’ve tried trapping them, seining, poisoning them, but even the dead [bleep] carp are stinking our docks. I just can’t [bleep] wait to get rid of them, and they must be gotten rid of. They are to blame for every [bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep]! If they destroy the commercial fishing of our Great Lakes, what will we [bleep] do?”

The fortune-telling grandmothers on Bayard and Mulberry, who began conversing regularly with a spiritual grandmaster via WeChat, were the first to recognize the urgency. Lucy watched as they dusted the sunflower shells off their puffy vests, stretched their aching joints, and hung a red banner across the benches that lined Columbus Park’s crooked pathways. Wobbling on their folding stools, they ordered the bands of singers to give them their portable microphones and shut up and listen.

“The Asian carp crisis has appeared in our time to give our people a purpose, you see,” they cried with their toothless mouths, “and the purpose is a worthy one.”

The oracle with the bent back doubled her efforts at tossing gold-plated joss paper into her burning bucket, which was stationed right in front of a Citi Bike station. Like ghostly butterflies, the paper transformed into ancestral smoke, which floated through the park, reaching the barefoot old men who sang while their wives gyrated to communal aerobics. Her smoke carried a message and the message reached the boys on the basketball court, who sweated out things they did not understand, and even caught up to the deliverymen on their electric scooters, who were riding by as if they were being chased.

“You are the Fish Generation,” the oracle grandmother whispered into the paper before dropping it into the fire. At least that’s what it said on the banner to those who could read it.

Lucy watched as word spread mouth-to-mouth through the networks of public parks, Ping-Pong associations, karaoke clubs, and gambling leagues. The Asian carp could be lured with moon cakes and rice noodles to swim alongside chartered boats across the ocean, back to the waters where the carp belonged, but it was up to the Fish Generation to guide them back to their rightful home.

Though her brothers couldn’t be bothered to keep up with neighborhood folklore, they couldn’t argue with the fact that, in the days that followed, dishes no longer came out nearly as quickly from takeout windows, and soup dumplings often broke apart before they even got into people’s mouths. Socks were being mismatched at the WashNFold and, for the first time in anyone’s memory, Chinese food delivery was just as slow as any other food delivery.

The oracles said that precisely around the time Chinatown’s ancestors sailed from the southern villages of Kaiping to California to work on the railroads, Asian carp were being introduced to American waters. Inspired by the sophistication of Austrian royalty, the princes of the new world imported the prized carp to breed in this vast, previously carp-free land. The bred carp were supposed to clean up the overdeveloping planktons that were turning rivers green.

Like other immigrants to the United States, each new generation of carp grew to be larger than the previous one. The carp lived and spawned in waters where native fish could not, and would not, live. Since they were entirely dependent on natural food, the carp worked hard to survive. They overcame drained rivers, years of drought, and they conquered the hazards of human and industrial waste. Floods pushed them from rivers into lakes. They moved through the country’s most polluted waters, always striving, improving themselves, and trying their best to live to the fullest extent of their lifespans.

During the second week of July, Dad walked out the door of 24 Mott Street with a duffel bag of clothes and never came back. Walnut was sixteen, Pinetree fifteen, and Lucy had just turned twelve. Still, none of them followed to find out where he was going. They couldn’t see what road he took to greater desires, and they didn’t know where those roads would lead them.

Mom called the police. “Can you believe it? He said he never loved me.” She made Walnut translate it to the blank-faced officer at the door. “Not ever. He always loved holding that over me.”

Lucy thought Mom would be happy that Dad was gone. Hadn’t she always complained that she was like a fire he kept putting out little by little? Shouldn’t she be glad there was nobody left in the apartment who would be upset at her for drinking all the bottles of Hennessy in the glass-fronted cabinet and filling them back up with oolong tea? If she wanted to get into another fight with the shopkeeper downstairs and threaten to chop him up with a cleaver, Dad wouldn’t be there to shush her and drag her home by the hair.

Yet that night Mom cried for the first time that any of them could remember. She chose to frame the story like this: Mom and Dad had a marriage of love. It was not entirely accurate to say that they enjoyed each other’s company; she never had an opinion he did not disagree with and no slight was small enough for him to simply brush off. Theirs was a Chinese love. It was not about making each other happy. It was about sacrifice. It was a love devoted to suffering for the beloved. They were supposed to sacrifice over and over again for each other, each getting a turn to give up something he or she did not want for the other, until one of them died.

Lucy always thought of her mom as someone under the sea. She used to tell her friends that her mom was a mermaid, which was the brilliant excuse for why they never got to see her. Whenever she was at home, Mom was on the new cordless phone in the kitchen, speaking in a dialect they couldn’t understand. She was the only one who ever broke the household rule of considerate silence.

She complained that her children took their lives for granted and that she embarrassed them, and they, in turn, resented her. Even though they saved up to buy her a leather purse last Christmas, she continued to carry the fake designer one she had bought herself from a hawker on Canal Street.

Lucy appreciated her. She really did. Yet she just couldn’t say that she loved her. Tell her that she was grateful and that she was sorry for the way things turned out. There was too much between them for that. There was no happiness without sorrow, no love without pity. While the cop finished his report, the youngest child touched the top of her mom’s head, and she hated her. And she loved her. She hated her and she loved her.

What made Lucy feel guilty was that part of her wished that Mom would die. Mom was just so unhappy; Lucy couldn’t understand how it could possibly be worth it to live like that. She was fat as a seal. What fairness was there that Dad got to stay this great sculptural masterpiece and Mom was like some kind of leftover piece of dumpling dough? It was obvious that Dad didn’t love her at that moment, but why did she have to go that far, to say that she was never lovable?

Lucy didn’t know how to help her, so she thought the best possible solution would probably be for her mom to be dead.

But Mom survived. Even as the furniture, appliances, and people in the apartment fell apart around her.

A week later, caravans of roaches ran for cover each time Lucy opened the sticky kitchen cabinets. Holes appeared in the neckbands of their T-shirts. The water in the toilet ran day and night, the lever held together by two safety pins and a paperclip. Pinetree stopped going to school and not one person tried to talk him out of it. One morning the big window popped out of its frame and smacked Walnut right on the head.

“It’s okay I guess,” he said, in the voice he used when he was lying. “I didn’t feel it in my spine or anything.”

They lost the dining room table under piles of clothes, so for dinner they held their bowls on top of the newspaper spread over the lower bunk bed, picking at warmed-up takeout food sliding back and forth on a plastic plate.

“I used to be beautiful,” Mom told them one night. “You don’t even know! All you see is this ugliness. I don’t blame you. I never finished school. I don’t know anything. I feel bad that I couldn’t show you anything else.”

They half expected Mom to say something delusional like, “When your dad comes back, we’ll be one big happy family.” But, to their relief, Mom just sat at home, lifting her foot up if any of them had to walk past her, staring at them without even raising one of her going-blue tattooed eyebrows.

Then one morning Mom put on makeup, crossed the intersection at Bowery and Division, and took the bus to Atlantic City to gamble at the Tropicana casino.

That night she came home with a different hair color and a completely new set of clothes, drifting through their front door on a cloud of stale cigarette smoke with her winnings in one hand and a casino burrito in the other.

Lucy watched her, mouth opened by the front teeth she’d yet to grow into, as Mom jumped on the bed without taking off her shoes.

Mom said that an oracle grandmother on the bus told her that the tide in her fortune had changed and now she was lucky. Her good mood was a relief to all of the children, even if it made them realize that their mom didn’t belong to them, not entirely.

It got so hot that summer someone mercifully broke open the fire hydrant in front of their window on Mott Street. Water drenched the neighborhood until shivering children ran home to sleep, as the asphalt washed itself into the drain. The water hitting the sheet-metal roof of the makeshift store below didn’t wake them, nor did they stir with the passing of garbage trucks at dawn. In her sleep, Lucy heard nothing but the rhythm of her brothers’ breaths, their comfortable shifting bodies. She must have imagined her mother kissing them on their foreheads before leaving because somehow she already knew it would happen. Just the way Mom always threatened she would. She thought they all did.

What day of the week was it? Lucy didn’t know. Had she kept track, it would have made her complicit. After washing the sleep from her eyes, she noticed some bath towels were missing. A few photographs were gone, too, along with her mom’s passport. She woke up her brothers and the three of them collectively decided to lie back down to take in this information: Walnut on the top bunk staring at the ceiling; Lucy staring at the wall, Pinetree staring at the back of Lucy’s head, and pigeons cooing behind the walls. Their own secret birds cooed inside each of their chests.

“Isn’t it obvious?” said Lucy. “First they get the fish tattoo, then they joined the Fish Generation.”

Her brothers did nothing to encourage her to continue. Walnut threw a sock at the ceiling and caught it with his knees.

“After Baba got the tattoo, they packed up their things, stifling their feelings, and left in secret without any promises to return,” she said. “That’s the Fish Generation. That’s just what they do.”

Lucy chose to frame the story like this:

Mama followed Baba, who followed his heart.

Fish followed the river, the father followed the fish, the mother followed the father, and the children, holding their arms out, did not have a past to chase. Love could be a burden, too. That night, in the room Lucy had slept in all her life, she wondered if their father would be sad to have to kill the fish. If their mother would be motion sick. What must it feel like, being on those waves repeating themselves across all the oceans, pulling away and then coming back again, spilling forward up to the edge of the horizon?

The fish themselves must be confused, too. The carp hadn’t done anything wrong. They weren’t even genetically modified. They lived for more than a hundred years in these American waters and felt a lot of anguish and confusion, which they passed down to their own fish children. Being brought here and then raised to feed a burgeoning population, they thought they were performing a noble duty. They had a purpose. It was not their fault they adapted so well. Their fish souls must be aching with unanswered questions. They had come so far and done what was asked of them; now they were unwanted.

Sometime later the three of them sat down by the window ledge and watched a funeral procession pass by on Mosco Street, but if Lucy blinked, she could see that morning’s new bride stepping out of a limo in front of the Church of the Transfiguration. If she blinked again, she could see the big black hearse rolling past.

On the apartment walls, underneath the white paint thick as fabric, was blue paint, green paint, and white paint again. The fluorescent bulbs that came in coils went from yellow to orange, then flickered out, and new ones were purchased at the hardware store. Dusty, tangled plastic blinds got replaced with supermarket calendars. The smell of herbal soup, rich with long-boiling ginger root, grabbed ahold of the clothes that would become too small for them and have to be given away.

They would have liked to ask Mom and Dad what they thought they’d lost out on by living as a family all these years, but Lucy knew she wouldn’t be able to. What if they knew exactly? What if they didn’t?

A handful of days remained in August, and after those were over, it would still be summer.

Scribbled postings appeared on the doors of restaurants, looking for new noodle pullers and deliverymen, and those jobs were quietly filled. Nobody was expecting the children and they had nowhere to go. They were still small and stooped and unacquainted with rooms big enough to fit them. It would take more time to figure out what all this new freedom meant.

Lucy believed what the oracle grandmothers said: There was a saying, centuries old, that every thirty years, fortunes changed completely. If you looked hard enough you might find specific instances that proved it in the personal history of every family. Paid-off properties suddenly got confiscated and the owners were tried for corruption. A good son built a soy-sauce business, but then his own son was kidnapped and returned without earlobes. An old man buried all his gold in his backyard, only to forget exactly where. Ugly children grew to be as handsome as movie stars. Their children’s children married charismatic artists and acquired their debts. Naughty boys yelled next to their grandfather’s hospital bed, his conscious mind rocking around his unconscious body that couldn’t block out the question, “Where did you bury all our money?”

The siblings knew about secrets. They were familiar with truths no one else believed in. Living in such close proximity, they knew there were real reasons and fake reasons and double reasons for everything. Where the official temple was and what building the unofficial one currently occupied. The real bank that looked like a fake bank and the fake bank that was actually a fake bank. Where the gang members hung out and where they pretended to hang out. The siblings knew that they had a story worth believing, something they could hold on to in case they needed it, until they didn’t.

Lucy thought that meant somewhere in the world there was a Samoyed that was irritably hot, its entire life spent in Arizona, but his puppy’s puppies ran free in snowy pastures on a ski resort. Then it was possible that Walnut would one day move to Brooklyn and meet the white girl of his dreams, and Pinetree would wake up in a dorm room so big he wouldn’t be able to believe it, and she could sublet their apartment to an overzealous hipster couple. But how was she supposed to calculate which generation she and her brothers belonged to? Which generation did their mom and dad? Where were the three of them in the process? How would anyone know when to start counting?

In a future July, Lucy’s twin boys would learn to read, at the same moment her parents’ eyes would no longer see. Just when her sons learned to like the taste of bitter melon, her own parents would forget how to swallow. In time it became clear to Lucy that there were some things about love she could grasp, but that other things might be forever out of her reach.

Rumors continued to reach the siblings that the mass relocation of a problematic fish population, so cleverly devised by retired sailors, had mobilized a nationwide community of immigrants. Lucy was shocked that the citizens of Chinatown carried on as they always had. They grumbled about their commute; they socialized their dogs; they waited in line for fresh tofu.

Walnut found an article about it on Grub Street. From uncredited sources, it said that the main methods were spearing and shooting—with only a small mention of netting. Sure, the carp were just “beyond natural biomass,” but that just meant they were “well fed” and the very definition of organic and thereby perfectly edible. Someone in the comment section wrote, “Those Chinese, they will eat anything, apparently.”

Around this time, an Australian backpacker disappeared on a trip to the Three Tigers Gorge, an airplane carrying two hundred people disappeared from radar, and the media began reporting on pregnant women appearing by the dozen on the suburban streets of Los Angeles. The news channels showed ladies walking in rows under brightly colored umbrellas when there was not a cloud in the sky.

One day the fire hydrant got turned off and men in hard hats brought a cement truck and the road was fixed. A breeze carried with it the first chill of autumn. Squirrels chased each other up trees. School would start again in the fall and concerned adults, without the benefit of luck or magic, would eventually get involved in their lives. But before that had to happen, Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy saw their parents one more time.

They were on their way to Rockaway Beach. As the express train rushed through the tunnel, the local train going in the same direction pulled up alongside. In those moments, the two trains were racing side by side. Lucy was the first to spot them and she grabbed her brothers; they pressed their faces against the glass.

Mama and Baba.

For a moment they looked exactly as they had in their wedding photo. Lit up with life and color. For just those few seconds, the five of them were together in motion, so close. Then the two cars diverged onto different paths, the parallel car became just a memory, and the children saw the water, the bridge, and the sun.