Some time, before we noticed it, Ah Ma had started renovating our cramped one-bedroom apartment into rows of cardboard boxes, boxes she got from buying canned beans, jars of spicy bamboo shoots, packs of Long Life noodles, because Ah Ma never buys just one thing at a time, that’s cheap and lonely, and we’re neither, instead, she buys things in double at least, like Double Happiness the intertwined Chinese characters plastered all over wedding halls to wish couples double joy because happy takes at least two people, even if Ah Ma never believed in Happiness—that’s for rich Americans, not people like us who came with a suitcase of patched up old clothes and $40 in a pocket sewn shut, she’d say—and then preferably, she buys items in triple because “three” sounds like “alive” in Cantonese and Ah Ma worships everything that sounds like “alive” because she was lucky she got out of China alive after the Communists’ takeover, and Ah Ba got out alive after he survived the Sino-Japanese war while his father didn’t, and I was born alive, and that’s all that matters because the rest, she’s always figured it out, with or without Caishen’s help, the God of Fortune, whom she distrusts because she only believes in herself and no other Gods, and she trusts her gut and her tricks when she drops the pennies in the Piggy slot machine at the Three Rivers casino she swings by on her way back from her cafeteria job at the university where she serves one-size personal pizzas and hamburgers with french fries and shouts orders in broken English until her voice goes squeak, and then she spends the rest of her day wiping tables and scolding students for forgetting their sweater or their keys or their $1,000 smartphones on the tables, sometimes she picks up cafeteria burritos left-over before her colleagues throw them away, if she’s lucky enough to win $20 at the slot machine, she buys packs of pig hogs in dozens, because they’re just $1.99 a pound, a big sale at Giant Eagle, she’ll freeze them in the freezer that’s already packed with frozen Brussels sprouts and chicken drumsticks she bought weeks ago at another sale, she’ll marinate the hogs in sesame oil and red chili peppers packs she’d taken from the cafeteria at closing time, make a meal for the three of us for a week, we eat on cardboard boxes like fancy bar counters, Ah Ba smacking his lips, sucking and crunching on bones until nothing but a pile of white dust is spit out, everything eaten, digested, Styrofoam containers rinsed with hot water (hot water is included in the rent) reused as dishes so Ah Ma can save every penny and send cash overseas to her mother, father, sisters, and brothers who can eat and live better than we do, and Ah Ma needs to buy nothing else but food, not even a dresser because she made one out of five cardboard boxes piled on top of another in an arrangement that could withstand an earthquake, cutting out the top and bottom flaps, sewing a button on the left flap and a string on the right one, and there, you’ve got a cabinet that you can open and close with buttons like a shirt, then the dressers multiplied into cabinets, wardrobes, pantries, lining the walls, tightly, securely, trapping our cravings inside a cardboard home. When rain seeps into the walls, storm and wind batter our crumbling castle, we’ll pick up pieces of our shattered pride and tape them back into a fortress.
Christine H. Chen was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Madagascar before settling in Boston where she worked as a research chemist. Her fiction work has been published or is forthcoming in Tiny Molecules, Gone Lawn, The Pinch, CRAFT, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other amazing literary journals. Her work won an honorary prize in the 2020 inaugural year of Boston in 100 Words and was longlisted in the June 2022 Bath Flash Fiction Award, and she is a recipient of the 2022 Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship. She occasionally tweets @ChristineHChen1