Vickie Fang is a reformed trial lawyer with a recent MFA degree. She is now writing full time and has completed a literary thriller about two antagonists from the Chinese Cultural Revolution who meet again in contemporary America—kind of an Amy Tan meets Breaking Bad. She has won first place awards from the Maryland Writers’ Association for both short fiction and the novel, was a finalist for a Glimmer Train fiction competition, and has been awarded The Maryland Art Council’s largest grant for excellence in fiction. She would love to hear from readers and can be reached on her website: Vickiefang.com
My Last Chance
I sat on that cold front stoop, and I knew he was coming, but I didn’t think about that. I looked at the birds, and I watched how they fell out of the sky. The sky was very blue, and the clouds were big and white, and the birds fell out of the sky over and over again because they were hungry and they wanted to eat the garbage that was in the streets.
I knew he was coming for me, but I didn’t think about that. I sat, and I watched the birds, and they jerked back up, and they went down again very fast like they were toys on God’s string, and maybe that’s why He made them be so hungry. Because He wanted to keep them there. And I knew my brother would be here soon, and he had never come for me before, and the birds were white birds, and I kept thinking about them because I didn’t want to think about what my brother would do.
Anyway, it was better to think about the birds, because they came from the other end of Pratt Street where the bay is, and I heard them call out sometimes like they were birds flying over a beach, and before Tony came I wondered if they called like that because they were remembering the ocean and the sand.
But I didn’t think about the birds anymore when I saw Tony pull up because just when he did, I thought of the perfect words to say to him.
“How do you like it?” I asked, getting up slowly because he didn’t get out for me. He didn’t even open the door, just lowered the window and stared with his lips pressed hard together so none of the Baltimore air could get in. “How do you like it out here in God’s country?”
And when I got in the car, all he said was what he would have said anyway. “Look at yourself, Mary Ann.” And then he said, “You don’t care about anything, do you?”
“You know me,” I told him back. “Don’t care, don’t scare.”
But all he said was, “This is a respectful occasion,” and his voice stayed heavy, and quiet, and slow. “So you will show some respect. You will remember that my mother is dead, and my father is a widower now, and there are certain things you will not do.”
And I heard him take a breath, and I waited, and then he made a list that I knew he must have practiced with his wife. “You will not steal anything. You will not use your drugs in the house. You will not have sex with anyone in the house—not for money or for otherwise. You are being given one last chance here. Do you understand me? One last chance.”
My brother never hit me, not in a long time anyway, but I looked at the floor when he talked. I don’t like to look at any of their faces when they get like that. Not when I can already feel the explosion coming—the ground slamming against me and my arms and legs and my chest all trembling like water that’s about to spill out of a cup. I don’t like to look at their faces, and sometimes they only pretend to hit you with a fist or something else, but they don’t really do it, and then they like to laugh.
“I’m not starting this car until we have an understanding, Mary Ann.”
And I was still looking at the floor, but I said it anyway. “They’re my mother and my father too,” I told him. “You don’t have to say it like they’re only yours.” And then I told him fast before he could say anything that I would respect my mother and father, and not act ghetto like I did at the funeral, and in the silence after that I was still looking at the floor.
“This is against my better judgment,” is what he finally said, and then he started the car. And we rode all the way to Laurel without saying anything after that, but while we were still in the city I looked out the window at the birds, and they were so many, and they are what I thought about because it is better not to remember things. And they were turning and falling and going up again, and sometimes their wings were all white, and sometimes they had a big band of black on each end. And the black was like the darkness that comes from under a door, a bedroom door, when the light is turned off.
And all the way to Laurel I could still see them in my head, their wings all white one minute, and then they turned, and the tips were black. Dirty birds. Shit birds. Rats with wings. Bad ju ju.
And I felt like nothing then because now I knew my brother might cut me off again, and I would probably do something stupid, and he would be through with me, and I had been cut off for so long before, and I hadn’t really been back on. Not really.
Not for seven years because I got in a fight with his wife when they came back from their honeymoon. And I don‘t even know what we were fighting about, but I remember she said she wasn’t married to anybody like me, and nobody she knew even smelled like me, and her voice got bad, and I saw her face, and I knew right then it would be a long time before I saw Tony again.
And I didn’t see anyone else in the family either, except T.T., and when he came back from visiting them on Christmas, he showed me what presents he got, but there was never anything for me. He said nobody even asked about me, but I asked about them. I kept asking, and when he told me Mommy was sick I made two cards at the Sisters of Mercy Drop-in art program, and I sent them with T.T., but nobody said whether she looked at them or not. And I thought I would never see her again, but then Mommy came to visit me, and the seven years were broken, and I thought I had my family back again.
And when I saw the house I asked the question that had worried me the most; I asked was Jean there, and Tony answered me, “You’re on thin ice, Mary Ann.” And I knew his wife was inside, and I felt sick in my stomach, but there she was at the door already.
And she hurried over to the car, so as soon as I got out she was explaining how it would be, and she said Daddy wasn’t there; maybe he would come back in time to say goodbye to me and maybe he wouldn’t. And she was telling me something about how she got everything all set up, and I knew I needed to listen to what she was telling me, but when I saw her I started thinking about the funeral instead because I was afraid she wouldn’t let me come in the house. And Jean was the one told me I couldn’t come into the funeral because I wasn’t appropriate. And I was afraid when I saw her because I had relapsed at the funeral, and everybody saw it.
They wouldn’t let me come inside because I was falling down, and the church walls were so white on the outside where they left me. They were so white, and my eyes were opening and closing. And when my eyes were closed there was a soft, dark spell on the world.
And when I opened my eyes again, my whole family was going to their cars, but not with me because I was no one they wanted to know. I saw them walking away together, and I tried to catch up with them, but it was no use because Tony came back and said I couldn’t go to the grave either.
But I had loved my mother, and love made me strong, and I stood in the church parking lot, and I closed my eyes until I could see her again. I saw her the way she was when I was eight years old, and my parents were having a party and she sang Fly Me to the Moon. I could see her the way she was, and I could hear her voice, sweet and slow, and she still had one hand on her heart and one in the air the way I remembered her, but there were no drunk friends laughing this time.
But I couldn’t sit there remembering something like that because I knew I had to be appropriate this time, and I told Jean as soon as she stopped talking that I wouldn’t be like I was at the funeral. And she said, “Well I should hope not!” And she got a big smile on her face like a jack o’ lantern when she said it, and I didn’t tell her I thought she was a bitch. And when she said she was making nice fresh scones for everybody, I thought she said stones, but I didn’t tell her what I thought about that either. And besides, the next thing she said was let’s go see what my mother left for me.
She had it upstairs for me, and I got nervous then because that sounded like it wasn’t money. And T.T. got a thousand dollars; he already showed me, and I wanted a thousand dollars too. But then I thought it must be Mommy’s diamond rings because she had three sons, but I was the only daughter, and she had two rings, and they might be worth more.
So Tony said, “All right, let’s get down to business,” and we went upstairs with no more talking except Tony told me twice that Jean did a lot of work getting everything ready.
“I don’t mind!” is what Jean said when we got in my parents’ bedroom, and there were paper bags of my mother’s clothes all over the floor, and Jean had washed and sorted them so that I could pick what I wanted. And that was all I was getting.
And I said Uncle T.T. got money, and Jean said she was sure he would share with me in his good judgment and in his own good time, but I couldn’t share lady’s clothes with T.T., now could I? And she laughed at that, and I could have cut them both then, right in their laughing faces if I had a knife or a good piece of glass, but I tried to smile instead. And I did smile, but I felt sick all over again because there were eight bags, and I could see one of them was full of wire hangers, and another one had a bathmat and some worn-out slippers. And I wasn’t getting diamond rings or money, and T.T. got a thousand dollars, and if he wants a cigarette, he buys a pack, and most of the time I pick the butts off the sidewalk to smoke, and he laughs at me too and calls me “butt mouth.”
But I am smart, and I didn’t think about that, and I didn’t look at Jean’s hands either because I didn’t want to find out what she was wearing on them. And nobody said anything. They were waiting for me to look at the clothes, and finally I started reaching all through one of the bags the way they wanted me to. And most of the things in there I didn’t even recognize. I wondered if they really were my mother’s clothes, but then I saw her Christmas sweater at the bottom of the second bag.
And I looked at it, and it was soft with white angels and a gold star, and for a minute I forgot all about what I could get for it because I remembered her giving me soup when it was cold. She wore the Christmas sweater, and I think she put her hand on my head too. I think I remember that. The boys hit me with a hard snowball in the face, and I came inside then, and she put her hand on my head. I think that happened to me.
And Jean and Tony were looking at me, and I couldn’t say anything. Because after I saw that soft sweater, I started to feel what I usually feel when it comes to my mother, and it is worse than being dope sick. The sweat goes down on the inside of me instead of up on my skin, and it is like water dripping down slowly the hollow part of a pipe or the walls of a house nobody lives in anymore. And I looked at the bags, and I said, “O.K., I’ll take it,” because I wasn’t getting anything else anyway. So I said “O.K.”
And when Jean said, “Which one?” I told her all of them, but I was still holding the sweater in my hands.
And Jean said didn’t I want to pick the things I really wanted? And when I said no, she wanted to know was I sure Uncle T.T. would let me bring so many bags back to his apartment. She said she didn’t think so. She didn’t think that would work, and besides she already made plans to donate most of it to the church yard sale.
That’s when Tony said, “She’s going to sell it, for Christ’s sake.”
And Jean looked right at me and said, “Sell it?”
And I didn’t know what to say, and Jean said, “Is that right? Would you really sell these nice things not even a month after the funeral?”
And I knew I was in a trap right then because I wanted to say I would never sell it, but I saw Tony starting to snicker, and I knew he would call me a liar if I said that. And if I told the truth, Jean would say I didn’t deserve those nice things, and I didn’t want to be greedy and lose my last chance. And they were both looking at me, and Tony was already starting to smile out one side of his mouth like little boys do when they smell a fart or somebody’s b.o. And I knew he was going to make fun of me in front of Jean, and I tried to say something to make him stop.
I tried to tell them both that I respected Mommy’s sweater. I hugged it to my chest, and I said I remembered Mommy wearing it. And I tried to tell them that I remembered how my mother looked right at me when I came into the house with my lips hurt from the snowball. She didn‘t look mad. She gave me soup, and I remember her hands didn’t hurt me, not that time. And she was wearing the sweater with the angels on it. And I was tasting blood with my soup because my lip was cut on the inside, and I remember I was happy because she was smiling at me. That was another time I saw her smile, and she had her sweater on that had the angels.
And I could see what their faces were doing while I was trying to explain, and after the first few words I knew I should have told them to fuck themselves, but I kept telling them about my mother instead. And all that time, I wanted to cut my own face and not theirs because you are less than nothing if you let people shit on you like that, but maybe this was my last chance to make them see how much I respected my mother. So I told them everything I could, and when I finished, Jean said, “Well, I’m sure I didn’t understand any of that!” And I knew she was sure she didn’t want to understand it either, and they were both going to make fun of me after I was gone.
And all I said was, “How much should I take?” And my own voice sounded very bad to me, like there was a trembling wind behind it, and soon I would fall to pieces, but maybe it really didn’t sound so bad because Jean smiled. It was a little smile, and this time I noticed that her face was very still, but her eyes made movements like she was looking for a way to run, and I wondered if she always looked at me like that and if she could have been afraid of me the whole time.
Or maybe she liked to hear me sound bad, because she said, “You just have to know how to manage things” to Tony and not to me, and her voice had little bells in it. And she told me I could have two bags full and held up two fingers I guess so I would know how many “two” was.
And when they were on the stairs, I heard him say, “Great management, Jean. Leaving a crack whore alone with everything in the house,” but they were already on the stairs when he said that. He didn’t want to stay up there with me And I still had her sweater in my hands, and when I was in the darkness with Uncle T.T., sometimes it was my mother I would think about. And sometimes I would think about her with one hand on her heart and the other one in the air singing about going to the moon, and that’s when I found out I was hollow inside because of the sweat that rolled down the inside of me, down to where there was nothing left anymore because sometimes Uncle T.T. and I made noise in there, and I even screamed the first time, and still she never came into the bedroom.
That was the year I failed the 5th grade, and then Uncle T.T. and the boys liked to knock on my head and say “Nobody home!” so I guess I was hollow there too. That’s the other thing I remember.
And I took my jacket off and put Mommy’s Christmas sweater on instead. And I could feel how soft it was, and I was wearing my mother’s white angels. And I hoped I would find something else like it, but I had never seen most of her other clothes. I don’t know if she really wore them. And there was one bag full of her underpants that Jean thought I could have, and there was a scarf and a couple of bras in it, and I looked through them again and again, and I wished I could find the white scarf that she had with pink flowers, little pink flowers. I kept looking because the scarf with the flowers was what my mother was wearing the last time I saw her. And that was a great day in my life. She came all the way up to Baltimore to see me, and Uncle T.T. didn’t tell me, but that was how the seven years ended.
He waited till he looked out the window and saw her coming, and I ran down the street looking for her and ran beside the car too when they drove up. And I yelled, “Mommy! My mommy is here!”
She had cancer, stage 4, and under the scarf she was bald as the moon, but my mother came to see me. She came to see me, and she stood in the shadows behind where me and T.T. lived because she was afraid to go inside; she never wanted to see what we had in there. And she said she was worried about me. She said maybe I’d like to live different and get out of the ghetto? And I said, not yet, I wasn’t ready yet.
And she said, “You’re forty years old almost. When are you going to get ready?”
And I said for her not to worry about it, but she did worry. All of a sudden I could see how much she was worried. That’s when I knew my mother was really dying. She was old and dying, and old people are like children, especially if they are going to die. They get to be afraid. They are children, and you have to protect them, and you have to protect your mother most of all. You always have to protect your mother.
And when she said she was afraid she wasn’t a good mother, that was the saddest thing she could have said. And I told her I was the bad one all along. I told her everything she did was perfect.
And she looked up where me and T.T. lived, up into the shadows, and she said she was afraid. She said she was afraid she’d been the one to put me on the road I was on, and I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking about when I was fourteen and she gave me to T.T. because I was so much trouble. I’d been caught stealing so many times, and I’d been to reform school already, and the whole family had a meeting, and they were all fed up with me. She and Daddy drove me over, and she stayed outside while Daddy took me in, but first she leaned over and slapped my leg and told me to stop that crying. And we never talked about that day. And that was twenty-five years ago, and she had never yet come into any bedroom I had with T.T. And I didn’t want her to have to. I didn’t want her to think about that. She wasn’t the kind of person who should have to think about that.
“I’m afraid I might have done something to get you started on this life,” my mother said.
And I said, “No, no, no,” all in a rush. I told her not even to think that, not even for a minute, and she looked so small and afraid. “You’re my mommy!” I told her, and I took that scarf off and kissed her head. I felt so good kissing my mother. And I wasn’t hollow then; no I wasn’t. A whole ocean of warm water ran through me, and lifted me up under the sun, and I covered every naked inch with lipstick kisses, until her head wasn’t white anymore. And when I stopped the kissing I told her I was where I wanted to be, and I was doing what I wanted to do, and I would run wild until I was ready to settle down, and there was nothing anybody in the world could have done about that.
And she said she felt better then. She was happy my life was not her fault. And I was so glad, and I kissed her some more until she told me to get off I was too big.
I stood in her old bedroom remembering, and holding her underpants instead of the scarf, and wondered when I would be sick like her. People with the HIV get cancer or something else, and it would be my turn soon. And I had never been a beautiful mother; I had just run wild with my life.
And downstairs Jean was cooking her scones, and I could smell them. I could smell apples warming up and lots of cinnamon, and I was glad she was Tony’s wife because I could tell she would take Mommy‘s place, and he would be safe and not turn ghetto. She would be his protection against someone like me. And as for me, I think I knew that nobody but Uncle T.T. wanted me around anymore.
They must have just promised Mommy to let me come back and take some of her things, and then I think they told me I had a last chance so I would behave. And I wondered if maybe Daddy would come back and see me one last time. Maybe he would do that, I thought. Maybe he would do that at least, but I didn‘t really think so because he didn’t see me for seven years, and he didn’t speak to me at the funeral, and I had been dead to him for a long, long time.
But if I was dead to him and everyone else, I still wasn’t dead to myself. I could still remember that there had been a time before I was stupid and failed 5th grade and started running wild with T.T. Back then, when I lived in the county, in Laurel, I played in my own yard in the summertime, and those were the days when everything I dreamed of could come true. And it still could.
All I have to do is think about it, and it’s like I’m a little girl again. I’m standing barefoot in the grass when it gets dark in the summer. And the lightning bugs rise up into the air and fall back down again, and rise up again, and still they are always in the same place. And they are my own stars—more than I can count, and so close I can catch them in my hand.
“ I have done volunteer work with prostituted women in Baltimore for many years now, first through YANA and then through its successor organization, Safe House of Hope. This story, for which I owe a debt of gratitude to my instructor, Jenny Offill, is inspired by one of our clients, and the climactic mother-daughter scene is an almost verbatim account of what she told us about seeing her own dying mother. Much of my writing tends to be pretty linear, involving ambitious people who are consciously trying to engineer their futures. 'My Last Chance' is different, and I hope it conveys my great affection for people whose lives may go in circles for a very long time, but who still manage to hold on to their pride, their hope, and their generosity of spirit. ”