Fiction · 12/13/2017

Láng Lái Le (Here Comes the Wolf)

Once there was a girl who had to tell a tall tale for a PhD program’s diversity statement that no one was actually going to read, but that schools were required to ask for to be consistent with their mission statement and to not miss out on federal funding. The topic of the tale was supposed to be autobiographical, but as with most things, tales — like keys, socks, and used condoms — never end up where you leave them. They always migrate, like “bad” immigrants, with a cause.

The girl was born in a gritty but productive part of the world that America was afraid would take over the universe, likely because it made stuff for everyone else and excelled at self-replication. Because America was smart enough to buy this country’s goods but also smart enough not to let unwashed hordes from this place come over and stay awhile, everyone there thought America was the shit, like a sadistic older brother who never let you play with him, but who you nevertheless worshiped with an irrational reverence that bordered upon fetishism.

Soon after the girl was born, her dad disappeared.

“You should show, not tell,” her lover said when he read about it.

“What do you know about graduate school?” was her response. Her lover wiped the asses of paraplegics for a living and cut their grapes in half, so their slack jaw muscles would not contribute to improper chewing and a subsequent early demise. He had played football for Hancock Community College before enlisting with the army, and then got honorably discharged for fucking a sergeant’s wife on an otherwise uneventful day in Afghanistan. He had applied for a job at a Christian coffee shop in Santa Barbara, but did not get it after hooking up with one of the divorcees in their Holiness is Hot Bible study. For this reason, she called him “lover” and not “boyfriend” because his functionality started and ended with his ability to get a certain thing done; there was nothing more to it than that. Different labels for different uses, as she would eventually learn in her genomics lab.

“Fine,” he said.

Still, she tried to write some more.

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One day, the girl and parents took a yellow car to a big yard filled with planes and people. She was three and her dad was thirty-three, and their age gap was sufficient to render completely different versions of what happened next. In her mind, he disappeared slowly into the air, like a balloon she accidentally let go of but had a hard time tracking as it got eaten up by the universe. In his, he went off to slay monsters, but first he had to go to an accredited PhD granting institution to give himself street cred in a world that did not recognize swords and divinations but did know what a GPA was, and what initials behind a last name meant, and conferred upon them the same imaginary status as tooth fairies and Santa.

The girl stayed behind with her mother and forgot all about her father, until one day she found herself on a plane to a magical place called Puerto Rico by way of an even more magical place, New York. To go find him, her mother said, because she was tired of waiting around in her two-bedroom castle for her absentee prince to come back, all while living with an evil mother-in-law who cooked only meat — despite her daughter-in-law being vegetarian — only to complain afterwards that nobody liked her cooking. On the plane the two of them avoided the poison apples and only ate bread (no one had ever died from bread); by the time they got to JFK, their shared plastic toiletry cup was cracked, and they lapped water from their palms in bathrooms that smelled of pine and bleach.

Afterwards, the girl and her mother sat down to build their house from checked bags and carry-ons so as to have a place to lay their heads during the overnight layover. But in 1989 JFK closed at midnight — either that or loitering by Orientals who couldn’t speak English and didn’t know to show their boarding passes when asked by security was expressly prohibited — and soldiers dressed in blue came to shoo them away into a black forest of concrete and light. Before they left they each stole a silver luggage cart, upon which they piled all their earthly treasures.

The forest they entered contained no dwarves or small, musically-inclined animals, only giants in cars speeding across asphalt at the speed of light who were unaccustomed to sharing the road with foreigners pushing luggage in the middle of a blizzard. The girl and her mother walked along powdered roads waxed smooth by snow and waved in the direction of the honks and beeps, nodding their puffy, red hoods at the wolves.

Eventually these two found their way to a house, a big one with many rooms, and like Goldilocks before them, they didn’t knock, only entered, and immediately sat down on big chairs in what was later referred to as the lobby area. They closed their eyes and shed the frost from their down jackets and almost fell asleep before the owner of the house came over and asked them for papered goods they did not have. When the mother produced the coins in her pocket, the owner laughed, and pointed them toward the door.

They spent the rest of the night walking. They tried other houses, big ones, small ones, some with palatial beds; each time the innkeepers turned them away. They would’ve tried a manger too, but Bethlehem was far and Jesus was nowhere to be found.

In the morning the girl and her mother found their way back to the airport, where they boarded a jet that took them to San Juan, in search of the missing but well-educated prince.

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“Better?” she asked her lover.

“What happens when they get to Puerto Rico?” he said. “Did they ever find him?”

“The Wolf got us,” she said. “He always does.”

“What the hell does that mean?” he said. “I want answers, not more questions.”

The girl suspected that he stole the last line from a Tom Cruise movie but answered anyway.

Her father did show up on the tarmac of San Juan International, squinting. He gave her a pat on the back that turned into a prolonged, awkward rub while discussing the logistics of layovers with his wife. When they ran out of things to say, they peered suspiciously at the strangers around them who engaged in all kinds of wildly inappropriate behavior, like hugging. Because they had just come out of a Cultural Revolution marked by disappearances and secret police, they said nothing. Because they said nothing, they wrote their judgment on their faces. The Puerto Ricans around them, because they were born into a benign colonialism that failed to teach them the virtues of fear and its inheritance — indirect communication — did not understand their judgment and smiled back instead.

Her father drove an old Cadillac the color of nubile grasshoppers, a low-rider with maroon seats that hugged the cobblestones on the veiny roads in San Juan’s south side, and led them to a tiny concrete house decorated with reinforced steel bars.

“How much?” her mother asked.

“Same price as the car,” her father said. “Just shy of three-hundred.” The girl could tell this was a point of pride for him, a gold star in a universe where getting a deal was the functional equivalent of a trophy wife’s new set of tits. It was there, on wet tropical nights before bedtime, that the girl hid from the Big Bad Wolf after he ate his dinner during the only game that he knew, one of seeking. The Wolf, for his part, played the role of hapless villain well, and always managed to search in all the wrong places for the little bit of life that eluded him, peering in closets and behind gas ranges, between sheets.

“Láng lái le,” he would yell, announcing his arrival in Wolf language (later determined to be Chinese; after all, everything — wolves included — were made there). The Wolf’s proclamation was an unfortunate, ill-advised lesson, because as the girl grew she invariably found out that real wolves never told you they were coming.

“How’s that for an ending?” she asked her lover.

“I’m hungry,” he replied, resting his jaw on her exposed shoulder.

“If you want dinner, just say so,” she said. A strange sense of familiarity set in. Was it true that all girls ended up with their fathers? She hoped that, should her application prove successful, neuroscience would disillusion her of the ideas Freud had long ago implanted in her head.

When she got up to head toward the kitchen she did not see the red, irritated mark her lover left on her shoulder, nor did she look outside to consider the kind of stiff, moonless nights that tend to draw out imaginary and real wolves alike.

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Christine Ma-Kellams is a social psychologist and college professor at the University of La Verne. Her recent fiction has appeared in Zyzzyva and The Kenyon Review, among others.