SABRINA NGUYEN AT THE 7-ELEVEN ON LOMBARD
Sabrina stands in front of the fridge a little too long. Her grandmother’s curling ear follicles twitch beneath the weight of its hum.
“Bibi, you wasting electricity. Close door.”
She does so slowly, savoring the exhaling wisp of frigid air as it shuts.
Sabrina’s grandmother is watching television in the living room, molded into a cracked burgundy chair. She bends down to grab a vase by her ankle and brings it close to her mouth, dribbling brown sludge from her lips down into its opening. The dip hits the bottom with a wet slap. She puts it down and slides another pinch of tobacco between her lip and gums.
On the screen Bob Barker guides a young woman to a multicolored wheel, beckoning her to spin. The pleasant beeps of the wheel gradually puts Sabrina’s grandmother to sleep.
She moves without hesitation, kneeling behind the backside of her grandmother’s chair, she reaches beneath and fishes out a blue Royal Dansk cookie tin. Popping the lid open, Sabrina snatches a five dollar bill and immediately slides the tin back to its hiding spot.
Slinking away, Sabrina shoves her flip flops on before she leaves the house.
Her mother’s car isn’t in the driveway. Fluid stains on concrete leave spectral traces of presence.
Fires in the Gorge belched great heaps of smoke onto the city. A red sun hovers in the mid-evening haze, imbuing everything with a dull pink glow. Everything has a sharp and pinching taste to it now. Nobody in the city has had a clean breath in weeks.
Sabrina’s flip-flops smack up and down the street. She’s nearly out the block when someone hails her from a nearby stoop. It’s her grandmother’s friend, an old man with an eyepatch. The one that leers at Sabrina’s legs whenever he thinks she isn’t looking.
“Bibi. Where’s grandma,” he asks in Vietnamese.
“Sleeping,” Sabrina says in English.
“Okay okay. Where’s mama?”
“Okay okay. Where you going?”
“To the store.”
“What store, Bibi?”
“Okay okay. Come here, Bibi, come here.”
Reluctantly, Sabrina approaches the old man. A thick, herbal scent seeps from his body, a sort of fermentation that could have been alcohol or just the ointment he rubbed for his aching bones. Up close, Sabrina sees how calloused and dark his skin is. It reminds her of her grandmother’s chair.
The old man with the eyepatch buries his root-like fingers into his shirt, producing a crinkled up wad of dirty bills. He pushes them into the pocket of her denim shorts. She feels his fingers loiter on her thigh for just a second too long before he draws them out.
“Bring Uncle beer. Like this.” He holds up an empty bottle of Heineken beside him.
She opens her mouth to say something but catches herself mid breath. The old pervert either forgot Sabrina’s age or didn’t care. She smiles all the same.
“Yes Uncle,” she says in Vietnamese this time. “Uncle, can I have a cigarette?”
A glazed look emits from the old pervert’s unsheathed eye. It dawns on him a second later what Sabrina is asking. He reaches for the mint-green pack of Newports besides him and hands her a cigarette. Sabrina tucks it behind her ear.
“Don’t tell grandma,” he says, and smiles with a broken grin.
Sabrina thinks she can feel his empty socket winking from behind the patch.
With a newfound unease she retreats to the bottom of the stairs and makes her way out of the neighborhood, past lawns thick with dead grass and strewn with toys, past harried hounds desperate to keep her at bay, past glittering brown glass shards sprinkled across concrete until she finally reaches Lombard Street.
Sabrina Nguyen is eighteen years old. She dropped out of high school at sixteen and agreed to started taking care of her grandmother to avoid being kicked out of the house. Her mother works graveyard shifts at a meat processing plant in Hillsboro. Sabrina never sees her but she always leaves phantom remnants of her presence—a freezer stocked with frozen pizzas, clean laundry for Sabrina and her younger brother, an ashtray in the living room brimming with cigarette butts.
All the fingernails on Sabrina’s left hand are permanently black, a side effect of subungual hematoma from when her father smashed her fingers with a hammer after she was caught stealing his wallet. The day after, Sabrina’s father moved out. Her uncle Tuan stayed with them for a few months after that. He kept a gun on his drawer and always talked about killing Sabrina’s dad if he ever saw him. Uncle Tuan was imprisoned on a felony charge a few years ago after he brutalized a TriMet cop that asked him for his ticket. Sabrina wore a splint on each of her busted fingers for about two months. She specifically remembers the bone of her middle finger pushing out of the skin, as a moth from a cocoon.
A few months ago Sabrina overheard a conversation her grandmother was having on the phone with a distant aunt in Thủ Dầu Một. Apparently her father had moved to Texas with a woman he’d been having an affair with. They had two kids together and ran a coffee shop in Dublin. Now and again, Sabrina still drops things from her left hand that she has trouble gripping.
Sabrina doesn’t have friends. She spent most days sitting on the couch watching TV with her grandmother. Together they’d watch game shows from morning till night: The Price is Right, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Wheel of Fortune, Deal or No Deal, and Jeopardy. In the milky luminescence of the TV’s cathode rays, Sabrina and her grandmother would talk about how they’d have been better contestants and what they’d do with their winnings.
Most evenings Sabrina prepared a frozen pizza for her and her brother. She’d knock on his door to let him know dinner would be ready soon. In the corner of her eye she’d glance at the door at the end of the hallway—the one that belonged to her mother. It was never open. The barest gap peeks from the bottom, like an eyelid just cracked. Sabrina watched the door every night, then afterwards sat in the darkness of her room listening until her mother woke up and left for work.
Sabrina is smoking outside the 7-Eleven on Lombard.
She reaches into her pockets and pulls out the cash the old pervert gave her. Vietnamese banknotes. About six-thousand đồng, a little over a twenty-five cents. She pushes them back into her shorts and flicks the cigarette butt into the parking lot.
She walks into the 7-Eleven. The lights inside are dim. The air is cold and artificial, breathing in and out of ceiling ducts and recycling itself deep within the store’s organs. In here, everything is given an opportunity to push their life-span beyond its natural limits, from the chicken tenders dreaming beneath the warming lights to the Polish dogs splitting themselves apart on the rollers.
With the five-dollars she stole from her grandmother Sabrina combs the shelves for cheap snacks, counting the total up as she goes. Two beef sticks, a bag of sour gummies, a can of sweet tea, some chapstick, and finally, a slice of pepperoni pizza adhered to wax paper by thick globules of burnt, melted cheese.
“The pizza’s free,” the cashier says as she pries it off with her tongs. “It’s uh, been here awhile.”
She sorts Sabrina’s things into a paper bag and sets it aside. Propping herself on her elbows, she leans in close to speak.
“You come here a lot, huh?”
She’s about Sabrina’s age. Eighteen, maybe nineteen. A black hijab pleasantly frames her round face, the muted color of the fabric contrasts with the pink flush of her cheeks.
“Yeah. I recognize you. You’re always buying junk food. Do you really think you should be eating all this stuff?”
Sabrina borrows a breath, holding it tightly beneath her chest. She debates taking the bag and simply walking away.
“I don’t know how to cook,” she says finally.
“Hum,” the girl says. “That’s fair. Me neither. My father cooks all the meals in our house. What’s the deal with your hand?” She reaches for Sabrina’s fingers and snatches them up, dangling each finger in her hands like it was a large crab.
“They’re all black on the end, and crooked too. Is that paint? No, it’s underneath the nails as well. Someone run it over?”
“Something like that.”
Sabrina likes the way her hand is being held. It imbibes a feeling of vulnerability without the weight of anxiety that normally accompanies it. She watches as the girl pushes her fingers apart and closes them with curiosity. The cashier gently puts her hand to rest back onto the countertop.
“Say, can I ask you something?”
“When you walked in here, did you feel something change deep inside you? Do you feel different? Were you the same person coming into this store as the one outside it?”
“Sometimes I think this store is a gateway to another universe. The front doors are the portal. You know how each planet has a different gravitational pull, so how much you weigh fluctuates from planet to planet? That’s how I feel about this store. I feel like there’s some cosmic change that’s completely distinct from the world outside. But, the change is deeper, it’s less tangible then say, one’s weight. Something inside me has changed shapes in here.”
She balls up her fist and holds it to her navel.
“Anyway, that’s just how I feel. Maybe you don’t, maybe the hundreds of people coming in buying cigarettes or booze don’t feel that way. Does the 7-11 on Lombard street exist on a universe all its own? I don’t know. It’s just how I feel,” she says again.
When Sabrina was younger she dreamed of playing an instrument.
Her father played the guitar. His was tall and black, gilded across the sides. After a night of drinking, Sabrina often heard him on the porch strumming as one of his friends sang old provincial folk songs. He loved Phạm Duy, and played his music late into the evening, much to the chagrin of their neighbors.
Uncle Tuan could play the piano. There used to be a Hailun in the living room. He only played for two people, his girlfriend and Sabrina’s grandmother. When Tuan went to prison, he told Sabrina’s mom to sell it to help pay for rent. Her brother was in his school orchestra. Sabrina remembers seeing him so quiet and demure in his chair, flute resting atop his knees. The old pervert had a viola. Her grandmother said that now and again he’d take the train down to Pioneer Courthouse Square and busk for beer money.
None of the women in her family played music.
She held an instrument once, a guitar that belonged to her grandfather, Baba’s husband. No sooner did she she bring it up to her chest did she feel a violent needling on her beaten hand. Sabrina dropped the guitar to the floor, its sonal moan emptied into the pit of the room. She abandoned the notion, and elected never to revisit the issue again.
Sabrina wonders what her father is doing now. She has never been to Texas. In her head, she pictures an unending plain flattened by dust. Her father sits in the only building for miles, playing his guitar in between sips of coffee. His wife and children sit on the stoop, listening to him play.
The old pervert wasn’t on the stoop when Sabrina walked back. His pack of Newports sits on the top step. Sabrina rushes up to grab them, leaving the trash from her snacks on his porch.
A dim and colorless night is coming soon. Her mother’s car is still gone.
Her grandmother is sleeping in her chair. An infomercial for a dog stroller hums in the background. She slips her sandals off by the door.
Sabrina retrieves the đồng from her pocket. Unfurling the dirty bills, she gently bends down to grab the tin beneath her grandmother’s chair. She places the money inside and pushes it back.
“Bibi,” her grandmother murmurs.
“Yes, Baba,” she answers, frozen behind her.
“You make dinner?”
“Not yet. I’m going to.”
“Good, good. Put Wheel on for Baba.”
Slowly, Sabrina gets to her feet. She picks up the remote and flips the channel. Vanna White is on the screen, illuminating squares with the touch of her hand. Sabrina’s grandmother shuffles in her chair, a smile creeps across her tobacco-stained lips as she closes her eyes again.
“Bibi, grab box from Baba chair. Take ten dollars.”
“For you. You good girl. Baba want to give.”
Again, Sabrina finds herself perched beneath her grandmother’s chair. She removes the money from the tin. For a moment she holds the ten dollars in her hands, then places it back.
“Thank you, Baba.”
No answer save for a few hoarse wheezes rising from the belly of the chair. She’d fallen asleep again. A stillness reaches over the room.
Things were different when Sabrina’s father lived here. Their house exerted the tempers of an uneasy treaty, held aloft by the looming threat of her father’s rage.
Sabrina holds up her hand to examine, folding the fingers in and out of her palm. With her unblackened hand she traces a line from the top of each tendril down to her wrist.
He’d grabbed her by that same wrist, his own thickly calloused fingers rooted so tightly that no amount of kicking or punching could force their release. Sabrina’s father dragged her into the kitchen. In the web of snot and tears that amassed upon her face she pleaded for him to stop.
She watched him as he reached for a cutting board and slammed it on the counter, then as he yanked drawer after drawer open looking for his cleaver. He never found it, and settled on the hammer instead.
Sabrina walks into the kitchen. Nothing really changed here. Her mother threw out the hammer and the cutting board, both of which were stained with Sabrina’s blood when the bone had punctured skin.
She removes a pizza from the freezer and puts it on the counter, then sets the oven to ding when it finishes preheating.
She knocks on her brother’s door to tell him dinner will be ready soon. He doesn’t answer. Palming the door open, she sees him poring over his desk, a pair of headphones over his head obscures her presence. He’d cried when his father left. Sabrina never resented him for it, but she often wondered why he felt that way. Sabrina closes the door, now again in an empty hallway.
At the end of the it is her mother’s room. A pink glow peaks beneath the gap. Sabrina slowly pushes herself closer and closer to the door. Something within her begins to feel light and weightless. She leans her body against the frame. It feels like nothing, her body now devoid of substance, a phantom anatomy.
The more force she puts through her fingers, the emptier she feels. Sabrina feels her body lose its tangibility. She feels herself merging with the door. No, she’s phasing through the door, shifting past the its physical form and into her mother’s room. The glow seethes from the other side, permeating Sabrina’s skin.
Her eyes are closed. She feels the bathing pink wash over her. Sabrina kneels. Something instinctual has burrowed inside her. It tells her the time to open her eyes hasn’t come yet, but to wait patiently, and that it should be here soon. She wonders if this is what it means to change shapes.
Perhaps this was her mother’s room, perhaps this was another world. She would never know until she opened her eyes. The thought keeps them clamped shut. In her head, she imagines the abstract of what this room would look like, mining the far veins of her memory for what she remembers.
Sabrina has been in this room only once before, after her father broke her hand.
She pictures it as it was then: a queen-sized bed with an array of comforters and blankets her mother purchased from the flea market, a dresser with a vanity, the surface of which was littered with jewelry she never wore, there was a Buddha in the corner, sitting sentinel over a congregation of incense stumps. The scent of jasmine and menthols mixed into a potion here.
Her mother sat her down upon the bed to examine the warped remains of her hand. She held it up, crushed and shrunken like the corpse of a freshly stomped spider. Leaning close, she whispered something in Sabrina’s ear.
Sabrina doesn’t remember what her mother said.
The oven dings. She opens her eyes. The pink has swept the room away. There is nothing in here. The vanity, her mother’s jewelry, the Buddha in the corner, all of it is gone, as if her mother and any trace of her had vanished into nothingness. In place of the things her mother had there was now just a flat futon mattress on the ground, a pile of clothes in the corner, and the ashtray which used to be on the vanity.
Sabrina licks her lips and nods her head.
“Yeah. Yeah,” she says to the unadorned walls.
Sabrina stands up and returns to the kitchen. She places the pizza into the oven and sets another timer for when it has finished cooking. Producing the pack of cigarettes from the old pervert, she steps outside onto the porch. The concrete has cooled somewhat now. All that’s left now is the hazy glow of smoke and starlight. She holds a cigarette in her left hand, and lights it with her right.
She thinks about the girl at the 7-Eleven, now at home waiting for her father to finish dinner. She has her elbows propped up on the table, telling him about her day and about meeting Sabrina. A dimness aches in the night. Far and away, she can hear the sounds of Vietnamese folk songs chasing dust across the plains of Texas.
Jackie Chhieng lives and writes in the Treasure Valley. They’re lactose intolerant and share a room with a red-tailed boa named Sylvia. Some of their writing can be found in Foglifter Journal, Thin Air Magazine, and Ouroboro.