Makeda was a good dog. She looked like a baby fox, and loved me more than anyone else. Every morning before school I walked her down the street toward the park. The houses getting more and more decrepit as we walked. We’d walk along side the park, avoiding the various wrappers and throw away items. Then we’d make our way back down our street watching as the trash transitioned from condoms, to cigarette plastic, to candy wrappers. When the homeless man, who sometimes lived in the dugout at the park, was home he’d always pop out to say hello and offer both Makeda and I a treat. I always saved mine to give to Makeda later. She had been his dog, before the homeless man gave her to me. My uncle, the “man of the house,” said if I wanted to keep the dog I would have to support her myself. He tried to make a bet with my mother about who would die of starvation first – the bitch or the bastard. Bully for him, it was he who gave me the idea of sharing my food with her.
My mother deflected to my father about keeping the dog. She tried several times to bring it up, but my father never noticed there was a dog or child present. My father, who worked so much overtime he probably never realized his brother-in-law had taken over his family place. He gave up celebrating birthdays, holidays, and back to school shopping for his family for years to buy that dark navy blue nightmare sedan. All in the hopes of seeming more successful at work. Because having a nice car meant you had a nice life, or something to that effect. Our house was a two family house, my mother’s brother and mother lived on one side, we lived on the other. The house was on the middle of the street both literally and figuratively – not the nicest, not the worst. Seemingly, just like the people who lived there.
You would think living with family would be helpful in tight times. Not my mother’s family though. They resented the burden of having to show sympathy for my mother and her husband. To avoid missing out on the rent they should have been receiving from strangers, my uncle and grandmother charged us an extra $500/month to stay in the duplex. We were also in charge of hosting all family events, to alleviate the strain of cleaning up for my uncle and grandmother.
Grandmother was old, which made the plan logical; my uncle was lazy – lazy and mean – which made the clean up intolerable. Every event he would encourage the cousins to run around with napkins filled with cookies and cake. At Christmas time, he would wrap all of the gifts in multiple layers of paper so there would be more trash to clean up. He would see pieces of cheese or fish on the floor and nudge it under furniture with his foot where it would be left unbeknownst to anyone until the smell of rot and decay would creep up days and days later. Once, at Christmas, I told my uncle that he had kicked something under the coach and as I walked by he kicked me in the back of the knee. As I turned to face him, he said, “while you’re down there, you can get it.”
So we continued, me and Makeda, walking the park, hiding out in our tiny bedroom. I continued cleaning up after our cousins, trying to help take care of Grandmother, and avoiding my uncle. After three years of the same, my world began ripping at the seams. My father graduated from school and was officially a doctor and an MBA, which did not mean that he played basketball. The following week, Grandmother passed away in her sleep. Before the dirt had settled back to onto the earth my uncle had raised our rent another $500/month, “the real estate agent said I could get at least a half a million if a sold,” and demanded that either my mother or I come clean for him once a week and go to his apartment to cook for him daily.
My mother had accepted the challenge of schooling. Determined to make something out of herself, more than what Grandmother or my uncle has seen in her future. Which left me. Ordinarily, I would go over and cook before my uncle had woken up from his nap. Makeda had been sick. I had been cleaning up after her and was a few minutes later than normal. I let Makeda come to my uncle’s house with me. She stayed close by my side anytime we weren’t sleeping, her on her cot, me on mine. When my uncle got up early and came into the kitchen screaming about the mutt, the late dinner, and whatever else was up his backside, Makeda got nervous and threw up. Moving faster than I could apologize I cleaned up the mess and was going to go back to preparing dinner. It was too late. My uncle grabbed my arm, twisting my wrist and pulling it back. Makeda snarled at him. Her hackles raised. He kicked her as he pushed my face inches from the sizzling aromatics, I winced as oil spat toward me landing on my cheek.
Makeda pounded her paws into the ground, lunging at my uncle, she grabbed him by the leg and dragged him away. The three of us fell to the ground. I got up, ran with Makeda by my side, into our house. I took the carrot I had now stolen from my uncle from my pocket and told her to sit. She did. As she took the carrot gingerly from my hand, I walked back to my uncles. I tended to his dog bit, I cleaned him and the kitchen. I finished making his dinner. No words were spoken.
The next day Makeda was missing. I went through the motions of looking for her at the park, by the homeless man, everywhere we walked together. She was no where. All the while, I knew my uncle would know where she was and how she ended up there. I didn’t ask. Instead, I continued going through the motions. Clean the house, sort the garbage and the recyclables, get ready to make dinner. There are two slabs of meat in the fridge one labeled “Hwang” – my father’s name, the other a nicer cut, brighter color, labeled for my uncle.
“Today, you cook two dinners. Mine first, the one for your parents second.”
I didn’t ask him anything. Just got to work. Both my mother and my father came to my uncle’s as they finished their busy days. My uncle watched as we sat down to eat. The sinking pit in my stomach continued lower and lower. All three plates looked about the same. Thinking I knew what was coming I had tucked the majority of the meat into, and under, their stir fry. My plate had mostly vegetables and noodles, once the barrier of the top layer was broken. As we sat and, my uncle watched. Halfway into the meal, my uncle brought up the “that damned mutt.” With each bite, swallowing became harder. The pit doubling in size on an endless sinking path through my intestines. By the time both my father and my mother were done, he had finished telling them the story of throw up, the bite, the shovel to the head, the butchering. He told them, “the only thing that damned mutt was good for was feeding you.”
No one moved or spoke. My mother swallowed several times, like she was trying to keep her dinner down. My father said nothing. When my uncle finally stopped laughing, he picked up my plate and threw it against the wall. Excusing all of his from his home, he told me to come back tomorrow to clean the mess. So I did. And I kept going back for a month. That was the time it took for my parents to forget all about Makeda. Even the homeless man didn’t mention her when I saw him. For another month, I would make my uncle dinner, taking a handful of uncooked meat out and storing it. It was a little over a month before I had accumulated enough meat for a very special dinner. Paired with the most robust aromatics and fresh herbs, the rancid smell somehow disappeared. Perhaps it was because my uncle was evil and his place smelled of it.
The vegetables had been sitting out in the cabinet above the stove. Science had explained that hot air rose and that warm temperatures for damp vegetables bred bacteria.
It was the most beautiful meal I cooked. The plating looked like something on a cooking show. It was so pretty I almost forgot myself. Almost.
My uncle ate it, it was so good he ate almost all of it. There was little leftovers, so I asked him if I could take some home for my father. Shoving me out of the way, he grabbed the wok and put it in the refrigerator himself. He lumbered off toward the living room. Quietly I unplugged the refrigerator and brought him a beer on my way out. The next day, I went over to cook him dinner. He was in the bathroom audibly sick. I went to the kitchen, plugging the refrigerator back in, I began taking out ingredients for dinner.
He stumbled into the kitchen. Flakes of throw up littered his shirt.
“Make me something greasy,” he said.
“If you’re not feeling well, I can make soup?”
I switched out the ingredients and made him something greasy. I wasn’t sure what unrefrigerated eggs or pork fat would do, but whatever it was less costly than had I continued arguing. My uncle was slumped over the table, head between his hands, as he waited. The plate of bright sunny eggs and chunks of shiny pork fat on top of kimchi. I had everything washed and dried, and had already left before he finished.
It was early in the morning when things began to change. My father and my mother, who never had enough time to talk, let alone long enough to argue, were debating the best thing to do. Unacknowledged I had gone into the kitchen and began making breakfast. My father swore he was very sick, but my mother insisted he’s too proud. It might be better to stay out of it. My father said something about a hypocrite oath and my mother turned her attention to me. When I got home later, and both my parents were still out, I went to my uncle’s. The sounds of the television trailed from the living room, followed by a four odor, lie rotten throw up. I followed it. Laying on the couch was my uncle. He didn’t seem alive, he didn’t seem to have a presence. It was hard to say, because he hadn’t been very much alive either. I watched and waited for as long as I could before I returned to our house and called 911. After I hung up, I called my mother’s school and left a message with the receptionist. Same with my father’s work. “It’s my uncle. The ambulance is coming to get him.”
My father had arrived home first. By the time my mother walked through the door he was gone.
The police came to notify my parents. He had suffered from a very advanced and strong case of food poisoning. Three different kinds. They asked my mother if any of us had gotten sick. She looked into the officers eyes, and then back to the ground, “ever since my mother died we were more of neighbors than family. Sometimes we bring extras to him. If something is on sale, but we do not eat or socialize. Terribly sad.”
The officers nodded at my parents, one patted me on the shoulder as they left. I went to my mother and hugged her, before heading up to my room. Their voices faded behind me. Between the inheritance and selling the duplex they could get us a better house. Move me to a better school. One where I could better adjust. “After all,” my father had said, “she didn’t actually kill him.”