K-Ming Chang, “Sweet”

We gathered at Ama’s new apartment, the one that Uncle No Balls and Aunt Small Eyes got everyone in the family to pitch in 50 dollars a month to cover. Mama complained and said, That bitch is asking us for 50 dollars a month when she just bought that cherry-dotted LV bag she cradles under her armpit everywhere she goes? She carries that thing more than she ever held her own babies! Still, Mama sent in the cash every month, spitting on the envelope to seal it. The new apartment was attached to a communal yard and didn’t require any stair-climbing. This way, Ama would be able to slick her wheelchair in and out by herself. Aunt Small Eyes said we weren’t allowed to bring anything sweet, because sugar-seeds rooted themselves permanently in our blood – Mama says they were all born suckling the ends of sugarcane instead of nipples – but because we were bringers, we saddled ourselves with trays of Ferrero Rocher chocolates from Costco, gold-wrapped boxes of See’s Candies bought with coupons, and fistfuls of See’s lollipops, also swathed in gold. Around our necks were gold-candied peanut pendants, what Mama called our inheritance. Ama used to tell us that if we buried our gold peanut pendants in any dirt and pissed on it, they would birth trees of gold-fleshed fruit with silver pits and platinum skin, and I believed this for years, even after that day I jumped out of Aunt Small Eyes’ car on the way to the Cardenas Market – she was complaining about how hard it was to shit out new money every month and I tore her pendant right off its rusted chain, determined to deliver it to the dirt of Ama’s yard – and when I hit the pavement, the street scraped off the skin of gold paint on both our pendants, and I saw beneath its gleaming shell that it was dull dollar-store aluminum, but I didn’t even give a shit, I just painted it again with gold nail polish and wore both our pendants belling around my neck, and I believed that someday when we were all dead, someone would plant them and piss on them, and their sugar-free pee would at last unlock its seed. Aunt Small Eyes, who still called me a thief, said it was a sin for us kids to eat the chocolates and the vanilla lollipops and the peanut caramels that unscrewed our molars, especially because sugar-pee-sickness would detonate in our veins. Aunt Small Eyes kept Ama’s foot saran-wrapped in her ice-filled glovebox and sat us all in her convertible and said, Do you see this? Do you want this to become you? And all my boy-cousins said it was cool, getting amputated like in a samurai movie, and they stood on the wheelchair while Ama slept on the sofa and tried to surf it down the street. Aunt Small Eyes said fine, then don’t listen to me, keep eating your own damn teeth. That summer in Ama’s new apartment, I decided I wouldn’t eat the milk chocolate inside the wrappers, I’d eat just the exoskeleton of gold surrounding it. All summer, my mouth bulbed with plastic and foil, and I shat out flecks of gilded paper. It turned the toilet bowl water so pretty, like there were goldfish swimming around inside me. I folded See’s Candies wrapping paper into gold rosettes and floated them on my tongue, imagining that they were flakes of sugarcane, imagining my bladder was a sugar-dusted fruit, tender to the pit. Ama let us watch TV all day, glazing ourselves on the sofa, while Aunt Small Eyes was out in the yard yelling at Uncle No Balls, who did not support the purchase of her new used convertible and laughed when the crows crusted it with shit-pebbles. One of my cousins said someday he wanted to own a Ferrari, and I thought he meant a Ferrero, the name I memorized in gold. Aunt Small Eyes always slapped my hand away when I reached for a second Ferrero Rocher, but Ama kept them in her collection of empty shoeboxes and tossed them to us behind the her back, laughing when we caught them in our mouths like golf balls of gold, our sweetness earned. You already have a Ferrero, I said to my cousin, and spat out a sliver of gold paper, my mouth graveled with crushed hazelnuts. He sighed and said, We really are screwed. Ama peeled plastic off the caramel lollipops and let us suckle them to the bone while we watched her soap operas, which were all about women with animals inside them, foxes and cranes and snakes. There was a woman who had the face of a girl and the body of a snake, and I pointed at the screen and asked Ama if someday she’d become one of those, if her whole body would shingle itself with scales and slither away, not needing feet for anything. She laughed at me, the sofa heaving beneath her, and said sure, she would become one of those, as long as I promised not to become my mother. I laughed too, teething calcified sugar off the lollipop stick, cardboard disintegrating on my tongue. I asked Ama if she wanted one. But she only held up her jug of diet Mountain Dew and said, this is my source of sweetness. Best thing is, if you leave this on your nightstand, it works as a lamp. It lights you from the inside. She laughed and said, remember when your cousin Calvin emptied all my Mountain Dew bottles into the garden soil and refilled them with his piss? And how Aunt Small Eyes poured herself a glass in the morning, and her face became a fish when she took the first sip? Remembering this, we all laughed so loud that the women on TV clamped their fists to their ears and Aunt Small Eyes stuck her head in through the sliding glass door and asked what was happening. Nothing, nothing, we sang back. I remember that day my cousin poured diet Mountain Dew on the roots of Ama’s guava tree, how worried Mama had been when she thought it was someone’s piss. The way she knelt and fisted the soil and smelled it and said, the sugar stays in us, it doesn’t leave, it haunts the blood, it sands us away. She thought I didn’t notice when she plunged her pinky finger through the lips of a Mountain Dew bottle and sucked her finger clean, sampling for sweetness, the siren of its warning. The roots of Ama’s guava tree softened with rot from sipping straight light, the fruits spitting out their own pits. So that the tree would recover quickly, we all took turns unclasping our bladders above its roots, squatting over the soil and salt-rinsing it every night. Ama kept laughing and said, That’s the only thing you have ever agreed to give, your piss! Everything else, you fight over keeping. She prodded the soft-toothed soil with her fingers, the bark sloughing off its rot, and said the tree would soon remember: the roots were a family, and as long as one was alive, the others would return to reinforce it. She wheeled into the garden every morning with a plastic colander in her lap, plucking the lowest guavas, gold-pitted and bulging, the ones she said were so sweet they had to be shared.

K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel BESTIARY (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2021, her chapbook BONE HOUSE was published by Bull City Press. Her short story collection, GODS OF WANT, is forthcoming from One World, as well as a novel titled ORGAN MEATS. She lives with her birds in California.

Categorized as Issue Seven