“English!”

Literature

The following is a story from Mai Nardone’s debut collection Welcome Me to the Kingdom. Nardone is a Thai and American writer whose work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. He lives in Bangkok.

PEA & NAM (1974) 

Pea jams a match under the burner. (In English: “Ignite!”) He holds on until the flame licks his nail. A cook’s fingers. He feels nothing! Left hand: one spoon of oil into the wok. Two spoons (“For health,” he whispers in Thai). The sheen catches the noon sun.

Right hand: salt, garlic (peeled in the night, before he rubbed down Yai’s feet, her heel-skin cracked and flaking like old garlic bulbs, toes purple from sleeping upright in the wheelchair), bird’s-eye chilies, pork fat thumbed from a jar—all into the clay mortar. Thumps it into a paste with a wooden pestle. The metal food stall rattles. The oil smokes. He scrapes a spoon around the mortar and tosses the paste into the pan. It spits. The first smell: garlic. Then the bite of chili.

Nam, watching beside Pea, coughs like a newborn. Pea’s right foot (right toes!) finds the dial for the fan. Twists to High Power

(Pea practices English by labeling things). Fumes pour out into the street, away from the shophouse where Pea, Yai, and Ba live. Only Ba’s been gone for a month.

Pea’s left hand, slick with oil the way Ba taught him, scoops pork bits into the hot mix. The spatula rings against the metal, scrapes and folds. Oil spills. A tongue of flame flutters about the lip of the wok. Nam steps back but Pea doesn’t flinch. Both hands (“Twelve is too young to lift the wok with one arm,” Ba always said. But soon!) jerk the wok’s handle, sending pork leaping off the blackened bowl. Pea catches it. Most of it. One piece leaves a trail of gristle across the metal counter.

“Pea, careful, careful,” Pea imagines Ba saying.

But no! The lunch hour looms. From the street is a motorbike growl. Pea reaches behind. He doesn’t even look. Hands find the dark soy sauce, the light soy sauce. One shot from the left bottle, three from the right. Sugar from the bowl. Stock from yesterday. He takes a handful of holy basil leaves out of the stall’s glass cabinet.

Nam ladles the rice herself. She knows to find the cooker tucked beside the gas tank. As Pea breaks an egg (one hand, but he’s been doing that since he was nine) into a second pan, he pauses to notice Nam opening the rice cooker. The steam lifts into her hair.

The egg is done. Crinkled brown corners, a cloudy yellow yolk (Yai’s eyes in the morning). Nam offers her foam container. Pea nestles the pork beside the rice, tipping the last of it with a quick heave of the wok. Too quick. The stool beneath him rocks. Nam has to steady him with a hand to his waist. She keeps her hand there.

In the month since Ba left on a bus for some mountain temple, Pea and Yai have lost the regulars. Each day, Nam comes to buy lunch for her father, but the shophouse is otherwise empty. Pea has stacked the plastic stools and metal tables in a corner. There is no kitchen; everything is cooked on the food stall parked at the entrance, at the top of a ramp leading to the sidewalk. The stall is an open metal counter with two burners, four bicycle wheels, and a glass cabinet that houses vegetables. Across the stall’s front a hand-drawn sign reads: Pad Krapao!

Below that, in English: Stir-Fry with Holy Basil!

Service is from eleven through seven. Pea takes orders and Yai takes money, tucks it into the kangaroo pouch on her soiled orange apron. She wears a hairnet, too, though Pea doesn’t understand why. She can’t cook because she’s sick. And anyway, she hardly has any hair left, just a few feathers of grey that sprout through holes in the netting. Sometimes Pea hates her for those tufts, and for the sour smell he has to wash from her clothing. It’s difficult to lift Yai without Ba, too, so Pea doesn’t change her as often. The mother of Pea’s mother, Yai is part of what’s left of Mama, and now she’s dying.

“Pea, don’t hammer the pork like that. That is not an axe.” Yai has a basket of holy basil in her lap. She plucks the leaves from their stalks and drops them into the bowl by her feet. She occasionally puts a stalk in her mouth.

“I’m not hammering.” Pea sinks the blade into the cutting block. “I’m chopping.”

“Pea!”

“Fine,” he says. “Crone,” he adds in English. He’s been waiting to use that.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“You are as bad as your father, speaking English,” Yai says. “If I could stand, I’d take the clothes hanger to you. All your hammering and oil splashing and English words will scare the regulars away.” But there are no customers left to scare away.

Nam, though, always returns. Her father, an English teacher, likes their krapao. It’s understood that the fried egg (an extra, typically) is given in exchange for the occasional English lesson. But mostly Pea manages with an illustrated English dictionary, which Ba bought him a couple of years back. Yesterday’s new word: “bludgeon.” Nam had used it to describe Pea’s wooden pestle.

“Policemen have them for clubbing people into mush,” she said. “The way you do with papaya.” Only Pea doesn’t cook with papaya. Doesn’t like the texture.

Pea likes to label things in English. They looked up “bludgeon,” but the illustration was not quite right, the pestle studded with spikes. The dictionary offered “baton,” as well, and “blackjack.” He settled for a label written in pencil, now taped around the handle of his pestle. Pea’s almost finished labeling his utensil set, all that is left unnamed as yet: tamarind-wood chopping block, metal spatula, wok (not

a “frying pan”). As for the scent of cooked rice, he doubts he’ll ever find an English word.

Ba always said that English is the language of a better place. During his drinking nights Ba yelled in the scraps of English he’d learned as a child serving pork skewers to American soldiers on leave from Vietnam. English, Ba said, is how he became so successful, although, as Pea pointed out, no one in Udon speaks it.

“It doesn’t matter. They know,” Ba said. And so he always used words like “ketchup” instead of tomato sauce.

“What is this ‘chup chup’?” Yai would respond. “Speak Thai!”

“People like the English,” Ba said.

“Who likes it?”

“My friends.”

“Don’t worry about friends—customers.”

“Go crazy,” Ba said in English, smiling at Pea.

Yai clapped her teeth at him. “It is your food that they like.

It’s true. Ba’s was the best pad krapao on this side of Thaharn Road. In the late morning, Ba attached his stall to the motorbike and they went to the market. Pea went, too, riding between Ba’s arms, clutching the mirrors, hair fanned out so he arrived looking like a pop star. They set up shop on the corner.

“Have you ever seen anyone cook krapao this fast?” Ba would prompt the newcomers. On two burners, with just his own two hands, Ba could manage three servings in five minutes. With Pea around: five

servings. Two scoops of rice per foam container, two containers per plastic bag. Hold the containers by the edge, or risk breaking the egg yolk. If they ask, give more rice (unless it’s Nam, for whom Pea always spooned extra to begin with). So Pea didn’t make it to school every day, but the market is also a classroom, Ba would say. “Right, Pea?”

For instance: “What new did you learn about rice today?”

“If the crop is too fresh, the rice is sticky. It requires less water.”

“And the rice today?” Ba said.

“Too sticky.”

Ba nodded. “Good rice should be like brothers, close, but not too close.”

With Pea at school, there would be nobody to run home for another bag of holy basil, a handful of chilies, or to force Yai to take her mud-colored pills (“No, I’m ready to die”). Nobody to lug the steaming container against his leg, thinking, This is how Ba grew so strong.

Pea would peel, mince, mash, but Ba didn’t want to teach Pea to cook. Once, as Pea reached over a frying egg, some oil spat onto his wrist and left a purple splotch. He looked at Ba’s forearms, stained silver with burns.

“Look, I’ll grow up to be like you,” Pea said, laying his arm alongside Ba’s.

Ba hit him on the back of the head, hard enough for Pea to drop his rice spoon.

“Don’t say that.” He picked up the spoon and handed it to Pea. “You don’t want to spend your life cooking in this stall.”

But one morning, a few months ago, Pea (always too small) came down to find a stool in front of the burners. Ba’s eyes were still red from whiskey.

“We’re not going to the market?” Pea asked.

“Not today. Let me see your fingers.” Every night Pea coated his fingertips in the hot wax of the spirit house candles. Ba ran a thumb over the shiny skin. He nodded.

“A cook’s fingers.”

Since Ba left, Pea has walked down the entrance ramp every evening to look at the motorbike, with its single eye-shaped headlight. Under its neck is an engine that looks like fish gills. It was all blue once, before the paint began flaking into scales. Now it looks more like a relic from a war. The motorbike is too tall for Pea, but, then, so were the burners until Ba found Pea a stool. Now, with customers draining away like water in a basket, Pea knows he has to take the stall to the market to bring food to Ba’s buyers. He has to drive the motorbike. Pea rubs the purple scar on his leg from his only attempt to ride the motorbike alone. He remembers how the skin came away sticky where it had touched the exhaust pipe.

Nam returns to their shophouse at dusk, unfolds a table beside the food stall, and does her homework while Pea cooks. Pea and Nam played together as kids, and now Teacher has asked Nam to share her notes with Pea. So Nam tells Pea what he’s been missing at school. She takes her notebook out of the plastic bag she’s wrapped it up in and writes out all the English words in red.

“Who are you cooking for?” She takes in the empty room.

“Ba says that if you cook, people will come.” Pea washes the holy basil in a bowl of water.

When Nam works her shoulder-length hair falls around her. She brushes it behind her ear each time she turns the page. Pea waits for this. The curtain that hides her face, the hand that pulls it away, then the gradual enshrouding as the strands fall back into place.

“Did you know that the largest organ in the body is actually just the skin?” Nam says.

Pea doesn’t respond.

Nam flips to the back of her notebook. “The English word of the day is ‘stormy,’ ” she says. “Like a monsoon.”

But Pea prefers the funny-sounding ones, words that coo like a dove, like “goon.” Or “oyster!” (To Pea, an exclamation of pain.)

Nam sets a bag of fruit on the counter. She takes one out. It’s covered in green hairs but the skin itself is a deep red. It’s ripe.

“Rambutan. That’s the English for it. My father told me.”

“Rambutan?” Pea repeats.

“Yes.”

Pea loves it: rambutan! Glorious. Sounds like a country, a war cry—nothing like the ngoh that Nam and Pea know it as. He digs his nail under the skin and tears it apart. White flesh. Nam bites, chewing around the seed. She hands it to him. There are teeth shapes in the fruit, in the “rambutan.” What a language.

A couple comes up from the street to order. The seats are stacked away, so Pea tells them to wait on the bench at the bottom of the ramp. He fires up the burners and Nam leans against the stall to watch.

“You’ve seen this a hundred times,” Pea says.

“Teacher says that people learn through repetition. In school we’re doing the same words over again, which means I’m learning a lot. My father says that someday I’ll be an English teacher like him.” She points at an ant journeying along the rim of the sugar jar. Pea catches it and smears it against his shirt.

“When are you coming back to school?”

Pea slows the pounding in his mortar. “I can learn English by myself. I don’t need a teacher.” He holds up the pestle, red paste crusting the tip. “Bludgeon.” They both laugh.

“Look.” Pea lays his utensils out on the counter. Nam touches the labels one at a time, saying the English words aloud (“Spoon. Fork. Cleaver.”) until she’s standing in front of the burners (“Ignite!”). She grasps the bamboo handle of the wok. Taller than Pea, she doesn’t need to use the stool.

He spoons the paste into the oil. She moves out of his way.

“No. Stay.” He climbs on the stool. Now they’re the same height.

“Let me see those fingers.” He hands her the spatula. She grips it at the top, farthest from the heat, like she’s holding a skewer.

“Don’t be afraid of the fire,” he says, repeating what Ba has taught him.

Pea helps her, guiding the spatula with his hand below hers.

“Push, pull, scrape, and fold,” Ba had told him. Now he tells Nam.

“It’s easier if you say it.”

Nam laughs. They repeat it: “Push, pull, scrape, and fold.”

“You can smell the garlic,” he says.

“Wait for the chili. You’ll know its scent in your throat, not your nose,” Ba had said, but instead Pea had smelled the whiskey caught in Ba’s teeth.

“I smell it,” she says.

“Make sure the paste is cooked through,” Ba always emphasized. “The paste is everything.”

“Now the pork. Wait!” Pea dips two fingers into the oil and presses them into Nam’s palm, kneading in an outward circle. He imagines that her skin is smooth, but actually he feels nothing. She grabs a handful of pork and drops it in the wok.

The hiss of frying meat draws Yai from the back room.

“Good evening, Yai.” Nam lifts her hands to greet Yai with a wai.

“Teacher’s daughter,” Yai replies curtly. She points at the two people waiting outside. “Have they paid?”

Pea pretends he doesn’t hear her.

Yai wheels closer and drums her hand against the counter. “Pea, have they paid?”

“Not yet.”

Yai always collects the money when customers take their seats inside, but this couple is waiting beyond the ramp, and Yai’s arms are too weak to slow her chair on the decline. Pea wants to see her roll into the street, dash herself against the pavement, wants her to ask for help, as she never does.

“My feet are sore,” Yai usually says. “This blouse, it’s getting scratchy.”

Then she waits until Pea kneels to knead her bunions, young hands on old skin, both callused. Pea has noticed that parts of his own body are aging faster than others. Around his fingernails the flesh is bunched from years of dishwashing with hard yellow soap. Patches of hair are missing on his forearm where he has reached over an open burner. His palms are potato skins: pitted, coarse.

But Pea’s skin is nothing like Yai’s, he realizes, whenever he peels the blouse from her as she leans up from the wheelchair. Moles pepper her breasts. When Pea changes her cotton pants, he has to work one side at a time, losing his thumbs in the folds at her waist, tugging the elastic away from bruised flesh, down to her thigh on one side, and then the other, towing the fabric in diagonals until he has it at her ankles. Then he takes a hot towel to her, scraping the beads of dirt from under her arms and breasts, from her neck, from the folds of her knees. The bucket of water turning darker as it cools. Yai stares ahead as though none of this has anything to do with her. Not her body, not his hands. She doesn’t speak. Pea never touches her underwear; Yai does that herself. When they are finished she wheels herself backward, out of his reach.

Yai glances from Pea to the customers outside.

“I can get the money from them,” Nam offers.

Yai ignores Nam. She always does. This is how she handles Nam’s relative prosperity.

“Pea, don’t forget to take the money,” Yai says as she rolls through the shredded plastic curtain into the back room.

Pea and Nam listen to the pork crackle. He lets it sit even though the meat is overcooking by now. He’s reminded that Nam doesn’t need to be here, that she doesn’t need to earn her lunch. The red plastic box under the counter holds the shop’s money, and it’s emptying faster than Pea can fill it. Soon he won’t be able to buy fresh pork. Already he has started on the emergency stash of frozen meat.

Nam prepares two containers of rice.

“Did you know that they don’t actually eat American fried rice in America?” She holds out the foam boxes. “Teacher said it was invented here, for the soldiers in Vietnam who missed home. That’s why they put tomato sauce and hot dog in it.”

“I already know that,” Pea snaps. “Ba told me before Teacher told you.”

“Okay.” Nam puts the containers on the counter. “Anyway, I’m going home. It’s late.”

“Fine.”

Pea takes the food down to the couple. Juice from the pork has soaked into the rice.

The man looks at his girlfriend and says something about it being soggy again.

“My father found one for you,” Nam says when she arrives at eleven the next day. “ ‘Smoking hot.’ It means really hot. Like your burner. ‘Smoking hot.’ Isn’t that funny?”

Pea writes it down in the back of his order log. He sketches a flame, a wok, the exhaust on a motorbike. His columns of foreign words are stained with pork grease and the smudge of chili.

“You’re late, though, I already made it.” Pea hands her a container fastened with a rubber band. She isn’t actually late; Pea just started the food early, worried that Nam might notice the dwindling portions.

When Pea opened the cooler in the morning, there were only three packets of frozen meat. He thawed one, leaving it out in a bucket on the ramp, like an offering to the morning sun. He watched the bundled lump unfreeze, imagining it as a curled-up animal, eyes squeezed, slowly unfurling in the sun’s warmth.

There’s enough meat left in the cooler for a day at the market, if Pea can make it there. He’ll try tomorrow.

“Too much,” Pea says when Nam hands him a bill. The red money box is empty and there’s a mere fistful of coins like dregs at the bottom of Yai’s apron pouch. “I don’t have anything for change.”

“Keep it,” she says.

“No,” Pea says, angrier than he means it to be. “It’s not my money.”

“Make me two then,” Nam says. “I’ll wait.”

“Who’s going to eat it?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters.” Pea moves away from her. He begins preparing a paste.

“Where’s Yai?” Nam asks.

“In the back, sleeping. She’s sick.” Yai didn’t sleep well, made painful noises (oy, oy, oy) in the night. But Pea pretended he was asleep. He didn’t want to rub balm into her back.

Nam unties the bag of rambutan on the counter. She rips the skin off one and squeezes the whole piece into her mouth.

“It’s not even English,” Pea says.

“What’s not?”

“Rambutan. Webster’s says the word is Indonesian. It doesn’t actually mean anything in English.”

“My father says it’s English.” Nam spits the seed into her palm. “Maybe Webster’s is wrong.”

Pea stares out at the street. Two things are certain: Ba’s cooking and Webster’s.

“It’s never wrong.”

Only he’s not watching the pestle, and it strikes the mortar’s edge, cracking the clay. A wedge splits from the bowl and the red paste spills onto the counter.

Pea and Nam stare at the mortar. Pea picks up the piece and slides it into place. He almost can’t see the crack, but the clay falls out. He tries again. The broken piece clinks against the metal counter each time.

“It’s broken, leave it alone.”

“It’s not.” Pea jams the wedge into place and holds it there. He needs it to stay.

“Just buy a new one,” Nam says.

“The paste is everything.”

Nam tries to take the piece, but Pea jerks away. He wipes at his eyes and walks to the back room.

“Yai, we need a new one,” he cries. “I broke it and now we need a new one. I need money to buy it.”

But Pea knows what she’ll say; he’s heard it before.

“What money? You drink away all the money.”

“This is the last time,” Ba had said.

“You want money, you go and work at the market,” Yai told Ba. “There’s no money here.”

Ba had opened the cabinet. The whiskey was gone (hidden underneath the dictionary in Pea’s bedside crate).

“Where is it?” Ba yelled, coming at Yai. “Where did you put it?”

He took the wheelchair by the arms. He leaned over her.

“You drunk. Get away.” Yai clutched her bird arms to the pouch on her chest.

Ba grabbed the apron and pulled it. Yai was tugged into a bowing position, the apron’s knot dragging the skin of her neck into her hair.

“Let go!”

Ba slammed Yai’s wheelchair into the wall. Yai jerked backward and crumpled into her seat.

In the doorway was Pea, watching, the whiskey bottle in his arms.

Ba noticed Pea and took the whiskey away. Yai made gurgling, baby noises. Then Ba struck Pea with the bottle.

Pea’s standing in the doorway clutching the triangle of mortar. He sees Yai slumped over the armrest of her chair.

“Yai!” She’s limp as meat when Pea tries to lift her upright.

“Yai, get up, please,” he says. “Get up.”

He puts his body into her. The skin pulls but Yai hardly moves. Her hairnet slips off, exposing bare patches of skull.

Nam, in a whisper behind him: “I’ll call my father. He’ll know what to do.” Her voice jerks Pea to his feet.

“Father,” he mumbles in English. Yai’s hairnet is in his fist. He rubs the coarse fabric against his eyes. He backs away from Yai.

“Where are you going?” Nam says, her voice rising. “Pea? Stay here.”

But there is no time for the ambulance. It’s the lunch hour. Time to fire up the motorbike (ignite!). Pea’s going to the market. That’s right: Cook and they will come back.

Pea bulls through the curtain. He won’t cry. He feels nothing! He kicks the bricks from under the stall’s wheels. It rolls at him. Pea throws his weight against it (always too small, too young—not today!). He’ll show them.

“I’m sorry, Pea. It’s my fault,” Ba will say again, like he did that last morning before he disappeared. “I’m so sorry.”

Ba had woken to find Pea pinned under the motorbike at 11:15 (“Ba, we’re late for the market”), the hot exhaust against his leg, Pea’s eye still shut where Ba’s bottle had landed the night before.

“I’m sorry.”

“Pea, what are you doing?” Nam shouts.

“I need to go.” But Ba never said how long.

The stall lumbers onto the ramp. Pea, trailing, sets his heels, slows it. Not enough. A wheel squeaks. He smells hot rubber. The stall is too fast. It bowls down the ramp. Pea runs. His right hand loses hold. The stall drums against the sidewalk, jumps the gutter, leaps off the curb. The utensils leap with it. The mortar strikes the pavement as a hundred brown shells; the wok, caught under a wheel, folds into a crescent as the round chopping block rolls out into the street traffic. Pea catches the pestle. Bludgeon—he waves it. His throat: a rasping, like the bite of chili. The air: wet pork, sugar suspended and shimmering, the bag of fruit exploding beautifully against the glass cabinet. His ears: a foreign language, his own voice yelling.

He’s trying but he’s too small. Twelve is still too small.

__________________________________

Excerpted from WELCOME ME TO THE KINGDOM copyright © 2023 by Mai Nardone. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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