The latest edition of Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing releases soon. It’s a 700-page collection of good writing, including work from the likes of Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, and Sandra Cisneros. Geri‘s contribution is set in a nursing home, told in the voice of the main character, Dottie (or Mei Ling) Teng. Geri says she “is reviewing her life and at times confusing the present with the past, as if our lives were layered and time and space were vertical, and place followed our bodies.”
It is introduced, in a section on structure, this way: “Mei Ling Teng’s long life leading from the Orient to the United States has been filled with the deprivation, agony, and insult of war, but she has also known love.”
Excerpt from “Slow Dance of the Heart”
“Where are my children?” I ask the nurse.
“Gone now,” she says. She is ready to take care of me. She picks me up, puts my arms and legs in their place.
I groan. Oh, it’s this one. She is nice, but she is not gentle.
“Sorry, Mrs. Teng,” the nurse says.
“My son gave me a backrub,” I say.
“How many sons do you have? I thought I saw four big guys there.”
“I have five sons. I have seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.”
“You have a great-grandchild?”
“Is that so, Mrs. Teng? Tell me more. You’re so quiet, Mrs. Teng.”
I warm up to her. I say, “I don’t mind if you call me Dottie.”
“You have lived a long time, Dottie,” she says. “You must have seen a lot of changes in this world.”
“You told me about your house in Hong Kong.”
“You must have been rich.”
“We had servants helping us. I never had to wash a dish.”
“It must have been wonderful.”
“We own buildings there.”
“Yes, you told me. You told me you owned three buildings.”
“My grandfather. He bought the buildings.”
“Must have been beautiful.”
“And then you have a house in Queens.”
“I’ve never been to the Orient.”
“You should go sometime.”
“Where should I go?”
“Wherever you like.”
“Did you go back to visit?”
“No. My home is here.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Too many questions,” I say.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I thought maybe you wanted to talk some more. Shall I wheel you into the television room? It’s almost dinnertime.”
“Sure,” I say. Nobody’s business what I am thinking.
The smell of pork chops hangs in the air. They wheel me right along, a little locomotive. I am passing a sea of sad faces. That one there holding a stuffed goat, the one with no teeth, she’s always talking. She smells like liver. She cries, too. Gives the nurses a hard time. Nobody comes to see her. The other one stretched out there, her white hair flying like an avalanche, she’s hollering for her mother. The man, there, he’s Chinese also, like me. Except, he speaks no English. They give him and me some version of Chinese food. I don’t touch it. He eats away, food dripping from his mouth. Food drips from my mouth too sometimes. Probably a hundred times a day, I think this: how do I kill myself.
They wheel me back to my room. Sit there. “I’m fine,” I say. “Not hungry.” I see him there. Daddy. He sits there in the cushioned chair. Not looking at me. A cigarette.
“They let you smoke in here?”
“Can’t stop me,” King says. The edge of sarcasm in his voice. He laughs, starts choking.
“Hush,” I say. I am giggling. “What if someone comes?”
“Let them come,” he says, in between the coughs. He looks away. He’s wearing the hat Stuart bought him for Christmas.
Daddy and I, we wanted to tell the kids all our stories, but we forgot. Up there on the roof of my building, we told story after story.
“We didn’t tell the story,” I say. “I didn’t have time today.”
“I should jump off right now,” I say.
“You say that,” he says. “You didn’t do it.”
“I wish I did,” I say.
“No, I didn’t do it then. And I can’t do it now.”
King starts laughing. “Life is cruel, isn’t it,” he says.
“Daddy,” I tell my husband. “You were never one for small talk.”
“I could jump off right now,” I told him. “I could jump off right now, and it would be better than my story.”
“Oh, it cannot be that bad.”
“As bad as your story is, mine is much worse.”
“Once I tell you my story, you will tell me to jump. You will push me off.”
“You were a kind man, Daddy.”
“I’m not who I am anymore either.”
“Welcome,” he says. “Welcome.”
“We met in secret,” I say.
He laughs, that cigarette laugh, “We are still meeting in secret.” He coughs, takes the romance right out of it.
“We stood there. Midnight or later it was. My hands on the railing. Your arm around my shoulder. I see it now, a hundred million stars. Like fireworks that got caught in the branches. Blinking like shy eyes. Peaceful, even though everywhere else below city noise. People killing, stealing, shouting—from one end of the city to the other. I didn’t hear any of it. I was so happy. I could block out the world.”
And now, he’s gone. “Where did you go, Daddy?”
A nurse comes in here. “Time to take me home?” I say.
“Not today,” she says.
“You are very strong,” I say. “It’s a good thing you are gentle.”
“Mrs. Teng,” she says. “You are very light.”
“But I break easy,” I say.
“I know,” she says. This nurse doesn’t feel the need to make small talk, and neither do I.
I am lying down now. You would think I could go to sleep. They brought old photographs, my sons. They are going through my house, it means. They held the photograph in front of me, the shiny black and white. They were afraid to leave it here. I was holding hands with my brother. I was not even five years old. His chubby little fist in mine. My brother. If he weren’t dead already, I could kill him. Sometimes I wonder why I am not yet dead. Must be all that ginseng. Makes Grandma a high-powered battery. What keeps me going? Then I think, it’s this. I have to tell them my story, but each time I try, I get too choked up. Maybe I should let my story die with me, take it into the ground with me. That is what stops me. And what will they think of their mother.
To what short stories would you point for good examples of exposition, conflict, climax, falling action, and resolution?