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A quarterly international literary journal

Little Machines

/ Fiction /

You are on the couch sketching the Christmas tree when you hear the growl of your brother’s Ford Bronco as it pulls into the driveway. He is home from Ypsilanti for Christmas dinner. You are waiting for him but pretending you’re not. His engine quiets. His car door slams.

In a moment, James stumbles in the door with a black trash bag over his shoulder like Santa Claus. He holds onto the doorframe when he steps into the house.

“Ho, ho, ho,” he yells. He takes off his coat and throws it on the chair by the door. He leaves his winter hat on. His messy blonde hair pokes out from under the brim. You have always been jealous of his hair, sandy and wavy like a California surfer. Your Asian hair falls heavy in one dark curtain that you can do nothing with but shove into a ponytail.

Your parents do not come to the door to greet him. You wonder if you should get up and help, but you’re a little afraid, not that he would ever physically hurt you, but being so close to your disappointment is scary. You are sixteen, and your brother James is twenty-seven. He is an alcoholic now, and you and your family suspect he’s started using drugs, too, though you don’t really know what that means except for what you’ve seen in the movies, which is not good.

“Is the teenager too cool to say hello,” he says, but he doesn’t sound mad, so you get up and give him a hug. He drops the bag hard on the ground and tells you it’s full of presents, and that the presents are pretty much all for you. You know he’s not kidding.

Your dad walks in with a beer in his hand. He’s been watching TV in the Lazy Boy recliner in your parents’ bedroom all day. His face is puffy like he just woke up. He hasn’t yelled at your mom today being that it’s Christmas and all. She’s been in the kitchen, making herself a martyr with a full day of solitary work, so she can hold it against you later because you didn’t help, even though you weren’t allowed to help, even though you’ll be doing all the clean up by yourself after dinner.

Your mom runs into the living room with short, shuffling steps. Her slippers swish across the floor. She holds her arms out like she’s been waiting all day, but you know she’s been dreading this moment because you never know what to expect from James.

All four of you are together, and Christmas begins now. Your other brother Mitch didn’t come home from college this year. He is in Ohio. Your parents are furious that he wouldn’t make the drive.

“It’s not that far,” your mom laments. Her apron is dirty.

Your dad says, “I almost drove down there to drag him up here. This isn’t how we raised him.”

You are jealous of Mitch. One day, you’re going to go away to college, and you won’t come back for the holidays. You’ll say you can’t afford it, and it’ll be true. You know they won’t help you with travel money anyway, even if they have it, which they probably won’t. You won’t care that you’ll have to eat a microwave frozen turkey dinner all alone on Christmas.

Your family doesn’t talk much during the meal, but no one is fighting, so you feel happy. Of course, you overeat your mom’s party potatoes, which are frozen hashbrowns and onions baked with butter, cream of chicken soup, sour cream and cheese, topped with crushed corn flakes. She only makes them for holidays. They are your favorite. Eating is easier than talking, but you feel a little sick. In a decade, after throwing up at a fancy Italian restaurant, you’ll learn that most Asians are lactose intolerant. Now, you don’t know anything about other Asians.

“Sooo,” James says, loudly in a sing-song voice, and you feel sicker.

Everyone goes silent. Your dad stares hard at James’ face, and you think a fight is brewing. You look down at your plate and push your peas around with a spoon.

“You might as well know that I lost my job again.” James has been working at the GM Willow Run assembly plant. “The assholes fired me,” he says.

Your dad drops his fork on his plate with a loud clank, and you flinch.

“I swear I wasn’t even drinking. They just said they smelled alcohol on me.”

“I’m sorry,” your mom says, so quiet that everyone knows she isn’t really sorry, but loud enough so she can claim she is.

You try to arrange your peas in a straight line at the curved edge of your plate but they keep rolling toward the center, which is the challenge and why you’re doing it in the first place. It gives you something to do, something to look at that is not your family.

“They’re shutting it down, y’know. What they’re doing is firing people before they close the plant down, so they don’t have to give us severance packages.”

“I know,” your dad says. “It’s all over the news.”

Once, your dad punched James right in the nose because he told him to shut up. You heard the crunch of bone, watched his head careen sideways from the blow. You cleaned up the blood from the wall when your mom took him to the hospital.

Your dad says, “It’s the Asians.”

You look up. You watch your mom, who watches your dad. You look to your brother, like maybe he’ll defend the Asians because the Asians are you, but he doesn’t say anything. He goes to the fridge for beer and brings back two, one for him, one for your dad.

“They keep buying them foreign cars from the Asians, and it’s just gonna get worse,” your dad says and cracks open his beer with a hiss. “They’re like little machines.”

You look down again. You wonder if he means the cars or the people, but you don’t ask because you want to disappear, so no one notices you’re Asian, and because you actually know he means the people.

“How can Americans even compete?” Your brother is teary-eyed now. He holds up a can of beer to your dad who knocks his own can into it, spilling beer on the table. Your mom wipes it up with her napkin. To your family, you are an American. You are not Asian.

“I’m sorry that happened to you, honey,” your mom says. She wipes her eyes with the beer-soaked napkin clutched in her hand like a security blanket.

You were adopted as an infant. James was eleven-years-old when you arrived from Korea. For years, he carried you around on his hip, even when you were too big. Your parents scolded him for spoiling you, but he refused to put you down. You remember wrapping your arms around his shoulders, resting your head next to his as you fell asleep. It was James who followed you with open hands as you took your first steps, ready to catch you when you fell. It was James who read bedtime stories and let you sleep next to him in his bed when you had night terrors, when, for years, you screamed when you were alone in the dark. When he got his driver's license and his first job, he drove you to McDonald’s and bought you Happy Meals with his own money.

But when James became a hockey star in high school, a world that left no room for little sisters, you rarely saw him. He used to say, Go hard or go home, and you knew he hated home. Once in a fight with your dad, he punched his hand through a window after your dad punched a hole in the wall. Another time, he got caught stealing the neighbor’s car because he drove it through their garage door trying to return it at the end of the night. They found him passed out behind the steering wheel. By the time he dropped out of hockey and then out of school, he was a stranger to you. You used to blame him for not saving you from your parents, but now you realize people have a hard enough time saving themselves.


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