Nighttimes with Grandma
by Charles Lowe
Grandma Yushi was a night creature. A seven-day week at a textile mill didn’t change that character. Every 9:00, couldn’t keep her away, grandma was atPortViewPark, playing wide open games of Chinese chess. If she lost, she didn’t give a fuck. She cared only about her horses and cannons. Attack, attack, and not a thought to her soldiers, so always, as she was about to finish off the other side: her general, a wooden circular disk standing at an intersection, would be lopped off by an opponent’s stray chariot or even on rare occasions, by a flying general. That’s how little she paid to defense. Then, she got up and danced with Mrs. Chi, the head of the Neighborhood Watch Committee, who had a red, blossoming face. Everyone else was afraid of Mrs. Chi, with good reason. The Neighborhood Watch (she was the Committee really) had been demon during the terrible times. I can still remember her with a loud speaker, stretching out my school principal. It was called jet planing. Two guys had a yank at the target; everyone had a turn, even my father, this was supposed to be a kind of lesson, until the arms of the target were stretched about out of the socket. Then, the target said whatever the target had to say, reading off a torn cardboard with big red pictographs that grandma sometimes waved about like she was warming up for morning exercises. Then, the lesson was over, but whether there was a class or just a chess and dance session in the Park, grandma and Mrs. Chi went after to the fire cups man to treat what Mrs. Chi put as “a tightness in the backside.” I was their tail.
The fire cups man’s office, if that’s what you want to call it, was in a basement at another alleyway, maybe two or three blocks from our own, and we went down into that basement, and the two women took off their buttoned shirts. Mrs. Chi was small and bird-like, and I thought she just about disappeared on a hospital slipover with a yellow stain edging up from a corner envelope. He used wooden cups then and put some oil inside and lit a match; then pop; the cup went into Mrs. Chi’s shoulder, then another cup, until Mrs. Chi had mushrooms up and down the center of her back. Grandma put her head on her arm, her wavy hair brushing the edge of the slipover. Grandma often took a nap while she was waiting her turn, but I kept my guard, watching the wooden grains of a cup dig into the Neighborhood Watch’s shoulder blade. Then, pop, whenever the grains were pulled, pop; it sounded like a fucking fireworks display, husband, and that’s what I enjoyed, truly.
Finally, when all the cups were pulled out, the fire cups man scoured a brownish mountain that now straddled Mrs. Chi’s back. He took a pin through a flame and went with the reddened pin at the deepest ridges, several lines of blood falling down her back into a terrycloth towel. After two hours of exploring through a bullhorn how to put pressure on a shoulder, enough to pack in a lesson, not so much as to quiet the target: the Neighborhood Watch had lost her the red blossoms on her skin so closed her eyes and soon started to breathe easily. She snored and sounded like a bicycle horn. Pu Yu Avenuewas packed with the same noise during the day.
Grandma was basically the same excepting that grandma’s skin was dry and would build up in slight coats, so the fire cups man took out a razor blade and flicked off the excess. The scratching made me nervous until the fire cups man started up the treatment. When grandma had a cool wind lifted from her shoulders, that’s how she put the treatment, grandma went back to dancing with Mrs. Chi. Mrs. Chi never smiled, always said she didn’t like having to spring around like a chicken with its head off. Grandma was possibly the only one who could get Mrs. Chi to leave a wide open chess game, and grandma enjoyed her torture sessions, refusing to let the Neighborhood Watch get away until well after the start of a nightlong curfew.
Charles Lowe’s writing has appeared in Essays & Fictions, Guernica, Fiction International, the Pacific Review, Pedestal, and elsewhere. His fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives with his wife and daughter inShanghai where when he is not teaching, is at work on a collection of short stories. “Nighttimes with Grandma” is from the collection.
Art by Margarita Korol.