Kevin Chong | House Poor

My own mother wore the same handmade clothes until the day she never woke up. Try as I might, I am nowhere near the seamstress she was. So now I wear my daughter’s old clothes. She left a closet full of them, in perfect condition, after she moved out of the house. There are enough sweatshirts for me to live out my days in them.

Mom, why don’t you buy new clothes? she asks me on one of her weekly visits.

I suppose I’m always embarrassing her. She doesn’t like that I wear her high-school hoodie, “Class of ‘96,” which was baggy on her as a plump teenager. It swallows me up now.

Too much money, I insist. I’m not wealthy.

Do you know how much houses are going for in this neighbourhood? she asks me. You’re a millionaire who reuses her tinfoil. Once you sell, you won’t ever have to worry about another bill.

Of course, I know that she will say it.

She adds quietly: there’s so much you can do with that money.

Here’s where I tell you my daughter and her husband have been saving for a down payment since they married three years ago. They keep saving, but prices keep rising. My son-in-law won’t consider having children until they’re no longer renters.

In this house, I raised you with your father, I tell her. One day everything I have will be yours.

She fingers her old hoodie, and finishes the coffee that she brought over. Let me to take you to H&M.

But I pull the hoodie over my head—I try not to turn on the heat—and tell her not to waste her money.

After she leaves, I tend to the yard but turn back in when I catch sight of a coyote. They live in the cemetery on the other side of the fence. This one has a cat in its jaws.

I don’t go out much of these days. Sometimes the only person I will see in a week will be my daughter, who doesn’t even stay long enough to help me with my phone.

I suppose that’s why I first start chatting with the real-estate agent.

He’s handsome, in his thirties. His suit has broad shoulder pads and he wears his hair slicked and side-parted. Looking at him, I wonder when men stopped trying to dress like men. Did I recognize his face from the flyers that filled my mailbox, the ones that bragged about sales made within forty-eight hours and over asking price?

It’s so nice when the sun disappears in the afternoon, he announces. Otherwise I get sleepy before my day is complete. I’m sorry to interrupt you.

My hand is against the side of the door. I don’t think I’m interested, I tell him.

You must be attached to this place. He steps back, and looks down the block. But is this neighbourhood attached to you?

I don’t understand.

What happened to the houses on this street? They were smaller; they all didn’t look the same. I like how it was before. He pointed to the newly built house across the street. A woman used to grow vegetables in her front gardens, fat tomatoes where all those rocks are now. Her husband would play Cantonese opera from a radio as he rode his bike. It used to be so loud!

When he raises his hands to his ears, I smile. You can come back again, I tell him. Who knows, maybe I will change my mind.

And so he comes back, sometimes two or three times a week. At first he asks me about my house. But then it doesn’t come up. Instead we talk about the neighbourhood, about immigrating. Why does such a young man make such time for an old woman? And yet we have so much to say. Once, after I haul groceries back from the food bank, he helps me with my packages, brings them to the back of the house.

You always pick a good time to visit. I invite him in for a glass of lemon water at the kitchen table.

He sees the coyotes crossing the street, ambling down a cemetery path between tombstones as though they’re housedogs. He stares at his lap, briefly upset.

I suppose you’re not superstitious, he says, nodding at the cemetery that my house backs into.

Of course I am! I’m Chinese. I point to the burnt incense sticks outside the window on the deck. My husband did not believe in ghosts.

He was Westernized?

I laugh. He was cheap. He got a good price on the house. The former owners were very motivated.

He finishes his drink quickly. Something vibrates on his belt. I don’t recognize it at first—it’s a pager! He gets up. He has an open house to prepare.

In the weeks that follow, I’m too busy to realize that I don’t see him. That’s because my daughter has moved back into her old room.

Is it because you want a baby? I ask her.

We had different priorities, she tells me. She unpacks her suitcase on her bed. Our ideas about security weren’t the same.

She has taken a leave from her law firm and spends her days at the gym. Salad boxes take up an entire shelf of the refrigerator. My hot-water pot is unplugged for her juicer. Dirty dishes are piled in the sink with soggy food scraps from the dinners she makes for herself. Used bath towels gather outside her door.

One Friday night, she brings home her best friend from high-school. A nice girl.

Oh my goodness, her friend says, thumbing the grad hoodie I’m wearing. You used to wear this all the time at Metrotown! Oh, so many memories!

Come on, my daughter says. She has a bottle of wine. They disappear into her room. I hear music and laughter through the locked door.

There’s only one person she needs to keep out.

I see you less than I do when you lived away! I finally tell her the next morning.

I know, I’m sorry. Let’s do something together. Why don’t we empty out the garage? We can raise some money. I can sell some old CDs. I follow her to the garage where she starts moving dishes in search of her belongings.

She opens a box of her father’s stuff. Awards from work and the Rotary Club. She handles a picture of her father in front of his Mercedes, in a sharkskin suit.

So handsome. I wipe clear the dust from the picture frame.

He was so bad with money.

That’s not true. He dressed that way to impress clients. He couldn’t drive up in a Honda. I didn’t say to her that his business had ups and downs. And that he died at a time when no one was making money.

He could have treated you better.

I wave my hand at her. Don’t speak poorly of your father. He always tried.

There are tears in her eyes. She takes out his old pager from the box. I wonder if we can get any money for this.

On the day my daughter returns back to work, the real-estate agent shows up at the door. It’s early in the evening. He looks as though he’s been wearing the same suit for days; his eyes are dull.

I’m sorry to have gone so long without a visit, he says. There was never a good time.

No need to apologize! I invite him in. You’re exactly the person I wanted to see.

He straightens his posture.

I need you to help me sell the house.

He seems more alarmed than pleased. Wonderful news! he finally says.

How much do you think I can get?

He names a figure that is more than my husband earned in the last decade of his lifetime. Can I take a look at the place? he asks, removing his shoes.

I lead him through the master bedroom, my daughter’s room, the room where my mother lived for our first five years here.

Why move now?

My daughter needs money for her own place, I tell him. And I wouldn’t mind living somewhere else. You’re right. This street has become completely unrecognizable.

It won’t be until you go.

He stands over my husband’s desk in his study. He traces his fingers over his old books as though he’s looking at them for the last time. All of this will have to be put in storage before we list it, he says. People can’t imagine themselves living in a house that’s filled with a dead man’s mementoes. They want big, open spaces.

We’re having a yard sale, I say. The rest we’ll give away. I don’t intend to keep anything. Not even this hoodie of my daughter’s. She will be back home soon, if you want to see her. She’s grown up now.

He hesitates. I should get going. I’ll call. We will act fast.

He follows me downstairs. There comes a moment when I want to blurt out my secret. The reason why the previous owners sold for so low. They were superstitious Chinese; they feared spirits. Would it be dishonest not to tell him?

His uneasiness suggests he already knows. If I have a secret, it’s one we share. Somewhere outside a coyote howls, to tell another coyote to come home. Its voice breaks into a whistle, and then into something our old ears don’t catch.

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Kevin Chong is the author of five books, most recently a novel entitled Beauty Plus Pity and the biography Northern Dancer.  His writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, Taddle Creek, Maclean’s, Chatelaine, FASHION, Vancouver Magazine, and the CBC Arts website.  He’s an editor at Joylandmagazine.com.

2017-09-17T23:22:12+00:00 September 17th, 2017|