May 1, 2019KR OnlineFiction

You Know I Want It Ice Cold

After you have put your mother to bed for the fifth time that night, you lean back into the sagging sofa bed and open your laptop again. You are trying to watch a reality TV show where entrepreneurs present their businesses in the hope of getting an investment. The judges are self-made men, each with their own stories of adversity and triumph. One a Queens native who started his billion-dollar clothing business by sewing ski caps in his mother’s house; the second a square-jawed man who, as a twelve-year-old, sold garbage bags to pay for a pair of shoes; the third a shark-eyed man with a receding hairline and impatient squint whose parents were refugees from the Lebanese war. There are two other judges, both women, one beautiful and one not so much. You are less interested in them, but they have their stories, too. All five started their businesses from scratch ten, twenty years ago, hawking sneakers, software, travel services, hairdryers, advertising slots, designer T-shirts. All five are billionaires today.

You dream of going on the show yourself one day. Most contestants want an investment from the square-jawed man, because he owns a basketball team and has an exclusive distribution deal with Amazon Prime and looks like a movie star. No one likes the Lebanese man, but he is your favorite. The other judges speak in kind, rational voices. They let contestants down gently, with encouraging words like “You’ll get there one day!’”and “Everyone has to start somewhere.” When they do offer investments, the terms are fair, in dollar amounts close to what the contestants ask for. The Lebanese man, on the other hand, calls people bozos and tells them his five-year-old kid could do a better job of making that presentation. He offers bad deals involving structured equity and royalty checks that only a real sucker would take. He once made a steely-eyed engineer, who had invented a bike with detachable electric wheels, faint. It is because of the Lebanese man that the TV show ensures that every contestant sees a counselor after they present.

You study the Lebanese man’s face now for the usual signs of irritation as some chump tries to sell him on the viability of a sixty-dollar luxury plush toy elephant. Just as he opens his mouth to speak, your mother calls from her room again.

“Terry? Terry!”

You look at the door with its peeling beige paint, its speckled gold knob. The wallpaper around the doorframe is brown with damp. You look back at your screen and turn up the volume.

The Lebanese man is saying that the plush toy market is for dupes, the margins are slim and competition stiff. The chump in question, a stay-at-home dad who feels his children’s need for luxury plush toys isn’t currently being met by the marketplace, is stuttering. The camera zooms in on his shiny forehead, his gaping mouth. You lean toward the screen.

“Terry!”

You look at the door again. You think for a moment that perhaps if you ignore her for long enough, that she will give up and fall asleep.

“Terry. Terry. Terry. Terry. Terry.”

You pause the video for the sixth time that night and cross the threadbare carpet. When you open the door to your mother’s room, the air that greets you is musty and familiar. The salty-sweet smell of your mother is one that, without fail, still makes you feel like a child, instead of a fifty-year-old man.

“Finally. Can you get me some water, please?”

Your neck tightens. A tantrum rises in your chest.

“The water is exactly where I left it,” you say, pointing toward the full jug on your mother’s bedside table. “You can pour it for yourself, can’t you?”

Your mother presses her lips into a pale line. Her body is slight beneath the peach floral bedspread. She is propped up against the headboard, against a mound of overstuffed pillows, and her bony hands are clasped over her abdomen. You look into the lined face that still holds a hint of the beauty she had in her youth. A high forehead and small nose, features valued among Chinese women of her generation. A forehead like that is meant to bring you luck. You ponder, for a moment, the question of whether your mother has been lucky. She has lived to eighty-five, after all, and has a brood of three sons, two of whom are successful bankers who are too important to visit her, but wealthy enough to pay for the best doctors and this comfortable, if small, apartment in a nice part of Brooklyn. The last son is you. You, whose last job was at the bodega in Elmhurst where your apartment used to be, at least until you were found sleeping in the bathroom and were fired, again. Was it lucky that you were fired at the same time your mother’s melanoma turned terminal and she decided she wanted to die at home rather than in a fluorescent-lit hospice? Was it lucky that you have no wife, no kids, no house in the prosperous New Jersey suburbs like your older brothers do, not even a girlfriend to uproot, which meant it naturally fell to you to move in with her? Your brothers think so, at least. Jim assured you he would cover the costs of the day nurse, that all you needed to do was keep her company at night. Jim lowered his voice when he added that he thought it was a good opportunity for you to reconnect. You wanted to reconnect your fist with his nose. but you did not say this because, at that point, you were already two months behind on rent and about to be kicked out of your apartment. Just as well Ma needed someone with her. Lucky.

You know the logistics of how you have ended up here, but sometimes, you still wonder. You tend to attribute most of the blame to your ill-fated decision not to go to college, a youthful rebellion against what you saw as the lack of imagination of your two brothers. But there was also the time in your twenties when, on the advice of a buddy and an entrepreneurial whim, you poured your meager savings into buying a ramshackle bar in a bad neighbourhood, bleeding through said savings in less than a year. And then there was the decade-long affair, if you could call it that, with the close friend and married woman who never let you do more than stroke her wrist, which you stupidly did, until she decided one day that she was in love with her husband after all. But perhaps it goes back further than that. Perhaps you’ve been doomed since birth. You are, after all, the third child, eight years younger than your second brother—incidental, unplanned, unwanted.

“This water isn’t cold anymore,” your mother says in her high, papery voice.

“What are you talking about? I don’t even need to touch it to know it’s still cold. I can literally see the condensation on the jug,” you say. But you step forward and touch the jug anyway, for effect.

“You know I want it ice cold,” your mother says.

You do know that she does. You know because you’ve already fetched her fresh ice water from the kitchen five times in the last two hours alone. Suddenly, you think of an invention you could pitch to the Lebanese man on the TV show—a tiny portable ice-maker, one that would fit in a handbag or on a bedside table, so that anyone and everyone could have fresh ice water whenever they goddamn wanted.

“Come on, Terry, my throat is parched,” your mother says, bringing her fingers to her collarbone in a dramatic fashion. She clears her throat pitifully.

You know the ice-maker idea would be shot down by the Lebanese man. The question would be one of market demand and thus size—how many people, really, would want to be able to have ice-cold water without leaving their beds? Use that thick skull for a moment, how many do you think, Terry? You imagine standing on the stage, the hot lights making the back of your neck damp and your nose shiny. The camera zooms in so close that your blackheads fill the screen.

You pick up the half-filled glass from your mother’s bedside table

“Hurry along,” your mother says.

You think for a moment about emptying the glass onto the floral bedspread and leaving the room and putting earplugs in for the rest of the night. But a better idea comes to mind.

“Ma, do you remember how when I was a boy, you used to pay me to do chores around the house?”

Your mother nods vaguely, her fingers still caressing the loose skin on her throat.

“Fifty cents to fold a basket of laundry, twenty cents to mop the kitchen, a dollar to scrub the shower grout.”

“Terry, are you going to get me my water or not?”

“What I’m saying is, maybe we can treat this water thing like a chore,” you say. Suddenly you are thirsty, and you take a sip from the glass.

“You want me to give you pocket money?” your mother says, her eyes crinkling.

You stop drinking. You hear the laughter in your mother’s voice, hear the scorn she has always had for you, the useless youngest son who could never live up to the two stronger, brighter boys.

“Sure,” she says. “I’ll give my fifty-year old son fifty cents if you get me a glass of ice water. Now, will you go?”

You clench your jaw as something hot runs up and down your spine. An old feeling.

Then you think of the Lebanese man. The structured equity deals, the royalties he demands, the outrageous interest rates. You think of your brothers, the good-natured voices they used to bully you into doing whatever they wanted and making it seem like it was they who were doing you the favor. Your tall, fit, married, wealthy, successful brothers.

But where are your brothers now? No doubt in beds with their attractive intelligent wives, women with good degrees and charming personalities who had given up successful careers to raise your brothers’ children. Your brothers are there, not here, in your mother’s claustrophobic apartment, sleeping on the sofa bed. You are here.

“Five dollars,” you say, boldly. “Five dollars for each time you want me to get you a glass of ice water.”

Your mother’s forehead is a wrinkled knot of skin.

“What are you talking about, boy?”

Slowly, you approach the bed again. You drink the rest of the water in the glass, and then you set it down, empty, on the bedside table.

“Get me my water,” your mother says, and there is something else in her voice now.

Does she realize, at last, that it is not your two brothers who will see to her day-to-day comfort, who will usher her on to her next life?

“Five. Dollars.”

You say it slowly, holding her gaze. No hint of a smile, no quaver in your voice, so she will know you are serious. The nurse won’t be here till morning. She is a captive audience, a cornered customer. The Lebanese man would be proud.

Your mother looks afraid. Finally she drops her gaze and nods, hurriedly.

“You know where my purse is,” she mutters.

You pick up the glass again and leave the room. Your brothers will let you keep Ma’s apartment when she dies, even though she writes you out of her will for reasons no one else understands. You understand, of course. Twenty years from now, lying in that very bed, you will bolt awake, remembering the searing chunks of ice you swallowed in the kitchen that night, the night you charged your dying mother money for a drink of water. Twenty years from tonight, for the first time since your mother’s death, you will miss her with a desperation that you have not felt since you were a boy. The shame will eat you hollow, and lying awake there in the cold quiet night, you will cry.

But right now, you saunter across the living room to the kitchen. You get the water and the ice, bring it back to your mother who sips from the glass like a scared child, a delicate bird. You watch as she drinks. A satisfied customer. Then, when she puts the glass back down on the bedside table, watching you with bright, wet eyes, you get the money from her purse.

Photo of Rachel Heng
Rachel Heng's first novel, Suicide Club (Henry Holt, 2018), was named a most-anticipated read of 2018 by publications such as Huffington Post, Gizmodo, Bustle, the Irish Times, New Scientist, ELLE, and Rumpus, and will be translated into ten languages worldwide. Heng’s short fiction received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, Prairie Schooner's Jane Geske Award, and been published in Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, The Offing, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from Fine Arts Work Center, National Arts Council of Singapore, and Michener Center for Writers.