Nit has worked in the hospital canteen for 34 years. She’s only months away from retirement and she’s already purchased a piece of land back in Korat, paid for with American dollars. She owns the legal title on the land and there are no liens against it. There are fruit trees on the land, as well as fresh water close to the surface and even a small stand of forest: a miracle. There’s a big level spot that would be perfect for a kitchen garden. There’s room for a chicken coop and a cattle pen and a corner downwind from the house where a pig sty could be placed. There are pallets of wood and cement and brick already paid for and placed conveniently close to the building site for the house she and her late husband always dreamed of; her youngest brother has recruited a crew and they’re just waiting for Nit’s go-ahead to begin construction. A young nephew has been camped out on the site for weeks guarding the supplies with an old breech-loading shotgun. Nit has no idea why she hasn’t made the call to tell them to start.
To the doctors and nurses she’s the pleasant, always smiling, dark-skinned, flat-nosed, wide-hipped elderly woman behind the glass who serves biscuits and gravy for breakfast, chicken ala King for lunch, and sweet corn in season. She hardly ever speaks, but when she does it is without an identifiable accent. Many people assume she’s Hispanic, or maybe Filipina. To her coworkers she’s the dependable one, the one who knows everything about the operation, the one who still lifts heavy stacks of china plates by herself, the one who works all the holidays.
To Nit the work in the cafeteria has always been ridiculously easy. Pushing a cart full of clean dishes across a linoleum floor in a dining room is far easier than driving a water buffalo through knee-deep mud in a paddie, and even before civil service benefits it pays a hundred times as much. When she first came to the hospital as a young woman, even after she had figured out that you’re supposed to sit down on the enormous toilets, she assumed the bathrooms were for senior staff and she went all day without relieving herself. She couldn’t believe that doctors would willingly share a toilet seat with a peasant. Now she uses the bathrooms without timidity and it seems normal to sit down.
Sometimes Thai students from the university will be assigned work-study jobs in the cafeteria. They are always from wealthy Bangkok families, always angry at being forced to do servant’s work. They are inevitably late to work, slow to learn, quick to disappear for cigarette breaks on the loading dock. Often they steal food. Nid’s Thai is rusty; when she does speak in Thai it is of course with a Northeastern accent. Once they hear her speak some of the students actually try to give her orders. If they cross that line Nit tells the union shop steward about their thefts and poof! Like magic they are gone forever.
She has a lot of time to think about things, standing behind the steam table, ladle in hand, hairnet carefully arranged over her still glossy black hair. As she nears the civil service mandatory retirement age she tends to spend more time remembering her impressions of the United States when she first arrived. She should be spending that time planning her departure, the sale of her house, the long-term disposition of her investments in America. She is an American citizen and she’ll need to apply for a residency visa when she goes “home;” she has not even begun the process. She needs to start learning the names of all her nieces and nephews, going through the photo albums she’s obsessively maintained for decades, matching faces to names. When she goes home she’ll be expected to provide birthday gifts for all of them every year. As the wealthiest person in her family, probably the wealthiest person within fifty miles of her new house, she’ll be expected to be interested in, and generous to, all of her relatives.
And they will be expected to listen to what she says, to pay attention to her needs, to serve her first at meals and rub her legs when her peripheral neuropathy flares up. They will invite her to every party, ask her to suggest names for new babies, consult her on every decision major or minor. They will respect her and depend on her and show their gratitude in a thousand ways. For decades she’s been looking forward to that arrangement, she’s been working every day toward the realization of that goal. But now that she’s standing at the finish line she’s not sure why she ever ran the race.
She has a catalogue for air conditioners that her youngest brother mailed to her from Thailand. She hasn’t been able to bring herself to look at it yet. She has no interest in air conditioners. In the winter she sleeps under two quilts, in flannel pajamas and a knit cap, with wool stockings pulled over her feet and her hands. When it gets hot, and it gets very hot in Iowa in August, she opens the windows and sits on her porch in front of a fan and she feels just fine. At bed time she takes a cold shower, dusts herself with baby powder, moves the fan to the bedroom and sleeps comfortably. She has only slept in air conditioning a handful of nights in her whole life.
Behind the steam table she thinks about everything except the move back to Thailand. She thinks about her garden. She’s spent countless happy hours there, weeding, hoeing, planting, harvesting. All the things that were chores when she was a child are now her most enjoyable leisure activities. She knows every family on the block, has seen them move in as young couples, watched them generate and raise children, in some cases seen those children bring home children of their own. In the cool months of the autumn she makes enormous meals from the produce of her garden, invites all the neighbors to dinner parties in the back yard, in the pumpkin-colored light under the enormous oak trees she planted as saplings when they bought the house, at the picnic table her husband built their first summer in the house. He was good with his hands. He made the table well, stained and varnished it to protect it from rot and insects, moved it into the garage in the winter time. The table has survived him by ten years. She stands in her Supp-Hose at the steam table, spoons up six-ounce portions of Brussels sprouts and wonders what will happen to the picnic table when she leaves.
She supposes she ought to have a garage sale. She ought to begin going through all her possessions and culling the things she wants to donate to the Crisis Center, the things she can sell, and the things she will take with her. But it exhausts her just thinking of moving her things out on the lawn, watching while strangers poke through her possessions, selling Suraj’s big easy chair to somebody off the street who has no memories of the man who sat in that chair, of the number of payments made over months and years to purchase it new. She dreads going through her husband’s things. All his tools still hang on their wire pegs in the garage. His clothes hang on his side of the bedroom closet. There are still pill bottles in the medicine chest with his name on them. It will break her heart to throw them away.
She thinks about her friends at the library, where she volunteers shelving books on the weekends. She adores the quiet; it’s like a temple. She thinks about her friend Sherrie, a woman she met by accident when they both showed up for a Boy Scout pancake breakfast a week after the event. They laughed together in the parking lot of the locked and deserted church, went to The Village Inn together and over their pancakes discovered a common interest in gardening. They’ve had pancakes at The Village Inn twice a month ever since, and been best friends for eleven years. Nit has not said goodbye to a friend in forty-five years.
She thinks about the monks at the temple in Chicago, who are always so nice to her when she comes for holidays. The Chicago Thais are a clique, not many from the Northeast, mostly Bangkok Chinese. They were cold and distant to her at first, but the late abbot made room for her in the front row and always recognized her by name, and so the congregation slowly warmed up to her and now she sits on the Temple Board. She is the only person who does not live in Chicago to ever sit on the board. The younger members of the congregation call her “Aunt.” They can’t remember a time when Aunt Nit didn’t drive up for the holidays. The women who snubbed her on her first visit thirty years ago now call her “sister.” She has not had to stay in a hotel in Chicago since the 1990s; there is always an invitation to somebody’s guest room. Back in Thailand someone with skin as dark as hers, someone who knew how to pick weevils off of young rice plants, would be invisible to these people. In the world of Asian status being an invited guest in their homes is an enormous accomplishment, one she is very proud of, and one that nobody she works with is even aware of.
She lost the baby in her fifth month of pregnancy, when she was just fifteen years old. The baby had been moving inside her before he died, so she knew he had a soul and that soul would become a wandering ghost, a blameless victim of her bad karma. The monks had told her it would be a simple thing to pray every night and keep the boy’s soul hovering around her, so that when she got pregnant again he would have a body to inhabit and be able to enter this world and fulfill his own karma. But she had never again become pregnant. She had been married for almost forty years but never conceived. She and her husband had emigrated to America looking for work, and they had filled their lives with extra jobs and clipping coupons and careful investment. They were comfortable together and in a sort of love: a quiet, unassuming love. Now Suraj is dead, Nit is wealthy beyond the dreams of any of her family, and she is post-menopausal, a word she learned in the hospital. There will be no more pregnancies.
And every night since she was fifteen Nit has prayed for her lost son. She prays to the Buddha to watch over his wandering, frightened soul. She sings lullabies to him. She recites children’s poetry when she is alone, knowing that he is still near her and that he will take comfort in his mother’s voice. On holy days she travels to the temple in Chicago and makes merit, which she dedicates to her dead son, so that he may be released to continue his voyage of death and rebirth. She weeps for him still.
His ashes were buried somewhere in Korat. She remembers that the cemetery was fairly close to her parents’ home, close enough to walk there anyway. But her parents’ home was bulldozed and the site covered with a new rice mill, a rice mill that they tell her is now obsolete and deserted. Her parents are dead, and her one surviving uncle is senile. There is no one to remind her where to place flowers. She knows of nowhere in Korat to light incense. Nowhere to sit and meditate and bring some peace to her eternally infant son. Nowhere and everywhere. The whole province is a graveyard.
She’s standing at the steam table, it’s a Tuesday so she’s serving a choice of taco salad or broiled lemon chicken. Her legs hurt. Her mind wanders. And suddenly she thinks, “Maybe I won’t go back.”
The thought almost makes her swoon. It’s not a thought she’s ever had before. She’s always worked toward the goal of going back to Korat with enough money to take care of her family. But the money can go back there without her, enough money to satisfy her responsibilities anyway. She looks around the cafeteria feeling like it’s the first time she’s ever seen the place. Her heart is racing. She could keep her furniture, her house, her garden, her breakfasts with Sherrie, her membership in the Chicago temple. She could keep Suraj’s medicines in the cabinet and his clothes in the closet. She doesn’t need to give up the picnic table. Nobody can force her to go back.
And here comes the fear. Once she and Suraj had taken a car trip to California because somebody said they should move out there. They had hated L.A. but on the way they visited the Grand Canyon, and right now Nit feels like she felt that one day in her life when she stood on the edge of an unbelievably deep precipice. Her hands are shaking. She could do it. She could just call and tell her youngest brother to buy whatever kind of air conditioner he wants because it’s going to be his house. She could do what is expected of her and still do what she wants to do.
She’s at work, like she is every day, standing at her place on the steam table, Rose from Guadalajara on her left keeping the salad bar stocked, Esther from Uganda on her right serving soup and breads, Madja from Ukraine on the cash register. Behind her young Steve from Iowa is leaning over the ice machine reading his philosophy homework and waiting for someone to shout for a stack of plates or a new pan of pasta. Everything is the same as it always is, but everything is different.
Someone asks for taco salad and Nit automatically scoops the mess onto a plate and hands it up over the glass. The man in the white lab coat who receives the food is shocked by the appearance of the normally placid woman handing him his plate.
Her eyes are wild, and she’s beginning to laugh, a laugh that is starting out quiet but has all the earmarks of something that’s going to get very big and very loud very soon.