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New California Fiction : COLOR STRUCK

July 17, 1994|ALYCE MILLER | Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction, Alyce Miller left her teaching position at Santa Clara University to be a visiting assistant professor in fiction writing at Ohio University. "Color Struck" is from her short-story collection, "The Nature of Longing," due from University of Georgia Press in October. "The small troubles of ordinary people interest me. It is through writing about them that sometimes we stumble on the extraordinary." She is currently working on a novel, "Diva."

Every year of Caldonia's 36 years, they'd all gathered at Mother's for Thanksgiving. That was before Dad died and the house on East 23rd was sold to a Chinese man, Lee Wong. Think of it! Ten of those Wongs crammed into the old stucco house that used to feel crowded with just five: Mother, Daddy, Caldonia, Vesta and Clayton. It made Caldonia shake her head in disbelief. Caldonia's latest obstetrician was Chinese, or was it Japanese? She never could keep it straight. A Chinese girl at work recently corrected Caldonia and said, "I'm Filipina." Then she reached out and laid her narrow hand on Caldonia's rounded stomach, so unexpectedly that Caldonia felt as if she'd been intruded on. The girl, seeing Caldonia's surprise, smiled and said, "For luck. For me. I want a baby, too." Caldonia felt the warmth of the girl's hand long after it had been withdrawn.

For the last month of Caldonia's pregnancy, her Chinese or Japanese or whatever-she-was obstetrician had been seeing Caldonia once a week. The doctor was a small, friendly woman with bright eyes who dressed in elegant suits, as if she were running off to business meetings instead of squatting on a chair to peer up between her patients' legs. She spoke proper English without any accent. "Everything looks good," she told Caldonia. "Everything looks just as it should."

This was Caldonia's third child, her conception so unexpected that at first Caldonia had not told Fred. She waited over a week. Not that she would have ever considered not having the child, but Caldonia needed time alone to absorb the fact that, even with Iris and Nadia both in school, she was going to be the mother of a baby again, faced with diapers and sleepless nights.

Now, as she busied herself in the kitchen, Caldonia longed for the past Thanksgivings at the East 23rd Street house, when Mother had festooned the doorways with crepe paper, and Daddy, in his matching slacks and sweater, carried out the holiday routine of washing and polishing every inch of his two black Cadillacs. Standing in that immaculate driveway, chamois in hand, he always greeted and chided them as they arrived, his children, then his grandchildren, encouraging everyone to pause and admire the shine of fenders and hoods, and listen to him brag for the hundredth time, "Look at that, a hundred thousand miles and not a scratch, not a bump. . . ."

Thanksgivings with Mother and Daddy had always been so perfect. There was plenty of room and more than enough food for anyone who happened along; neighbors, friends, extra relatives, dropping in for some of Mother's famous sweet potato pie: "Oh, and while you're at it, honey, try a little taste of turkey and a bit of oyster dressing, and just go ahead and get you some of my bread pudding, too."

But the last year had brought about many changes. Daddy was dead and Mother had squeezed herself and her possessions into the cement-block Harriet Tubman senior high-rises in West Oakland. Her cramped fourth-floor apartment, with its tiny kitchenette overlooking the freeway, no longer accommodated the swell of family. She now boiled tea water on a two-burner stove and heated up frozen dinners in a microwave.

And Mother herself, gone stoop-shouldered and brackish and irritable, complained that the grandchildren made her nervous when they came to visit: She reproached them for being too loud in the elevators, always threatening to pull on the emergency buzzer, and she worried they'd tear up her furniture, so she'd covered everything in plastic and laid runners along the beige pile carpet. She spoke more sharply to Caldonia, Vesta and Clayton, her three grown children, as if they were still children themselves, wearing on her last good nerve.

What Mother announced to Caldonia about Thanksgiving this year was, "I've retired from cooking, and now it's somebody else's turn." What she meant was, "It's up to you, Caldonia; Clayton and Vesta are useless."

So Caldonia and Fred won by default, even though Caldonia was just a month past giving birth and still feeling sore and irritable. This child had come Cesarean, a fact that dulled Caldonia's sense of accomplishment. It seemed the baby had not really come out of her body. Now here she was, barely recuperated, roasting the turkey and browning homemade bread crumbs, all because she knew better than to count on Vesta and Clayton.

"Y'all gonna have to pitch in; I'm not the Lone Ranger, you know," she told Vesta and Clayton by phone, with special emphasis in her voice just to make a point. She wondered if God was growing weary with her impatience.

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