by David Ryan, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE BY HALIMAH MARCUS
For me, David Ryan’s “New Moon” is a story about the pursuit of memory; memories that are sewn to us, like Peter Pan’s shadow, but which we cannot possess. At times they align perfectly with our self-conception, at others they dance off definitely on their own. The attempt to make them sit still is made through storytelling — stories we tell ourselves and stories we tell others.
In “New Moon,” the narrator, now an adult, remembers the months when, as a young teenaged boy, he took a job at the local Chinese restaurant to pay off a debt he incurred stealing guitars. The guitars were expensive and the debt was massive — several thousand dollars. The narrator recalls, “My debt would forever retreat, slippery, faster than me, outrunning its possible satisfaction.” His memory too, is slippery. Not the facts — those have remained painfully clear — but the implications. As his younger self works to satisfy his debt, his adult self tries to reconcile his memory of what happened — a profound violation at the hands of someone he trusted — with who he has become.
The effort, however, is subtle. The current particulars of the narrator’s life aren’t important. Even without details, we know that he is profoundly changed. This subtlety is a credit to Ryan’s writing; the word that comes first to mind is restraint, yet Ryan’s prose isn’t so much restrained as it is restraining: holding back decades longing, pain that seeps through and around the words, despite the narrator’s effort to keep it at bay.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
by David Ryan, recommended by Electric Literature
I came to New Moon during one of the worst phases of my life. I was only just thirteen, but already my future seemed to hold a string of repeat offenses, shitty decisions of my own foolish choosing — or, worse, choices made for me by people even more inept at living than I was. Late in the afternoon of my thirteenth birthday, I was picked up for grand larceny and breaking and entering. I’d stolen from a small shop that made guitars. I was of course too young for the charges in any big world sense, but the math of the damages suited the terms. Up until then my sins were petty misdemeanors — lifting cassettes from record shops, fistfights in convenient store parking lots, dealing caffeine pills passed off as Black Beauties. I’d been a fish far too small to keep, tossed back into the pond of some greater, future undoing. And here it was. Now, those I’d stolen from were in a position to change me. They wouldn’t press charges, for the right compensation. It would keep me from a long stay in juvie. The owners took the cost of each guitar we’d stolen as a complete loss. My father, who didn’t have the money, found it — though he never revealed from where or how. I could use my imagination, that’s what he wanted. Now I was in debt to him, I would take this as a life lesson. By then, my parents’ arguments had grown familiar and terrible, a ritualized menace in the kitchen, or their rage passing muted through their bedroom walls. Even then, I saw their exchanges clamoring to pull the future away from us as a family.
I’d been to New Moon once, maybe twice. It was the only Chinese restaurant in our town. Steve Lu, the manager, was the husband of my mother’s friend, Chris, who worked at New Moon as a waitress. She came by our place sometimes just before her shift to visit with my mother. She hid it well enough, but most of these visits you could tell that she’d been drinking. She was about my mother’s age — her early thirties — and at some point in her brief life had probably been attractive. But she looked awash now, already, with tired eyes and an alcoholic bloat to her face. Though she was very thin, a small belly pushed out from her white shirt. The paunch looked strange, and manlike. I don’t recall why my mother and she were close. I don’t know, really, what they would have had in common. Or, maybe they weren’t all that close and memory has shifted them closer together in my mind. And when I suddenly needed to earn money, Chris was the one who suggested the restaurant.
When you first walked into New Moon you smelled chicken, soy sauce, the faint hint of cigarette smoke at the bar, and faced a long glass aquarium with tiny exotic fish, darting and worrying the water around several enormous, sluggish gold carp. The carp floated docile and monstrous and common, and if they’d been capable of rage, they might have pushed the tank over by force, tumbling out in a riot of murk and day-glo baubles — the deep sea divers and livid corals, the sunken ships and treasure chests, all the smaller fish twitching their lurid rainbow over the dirty burgundy carpet. But every time I looked into the aquarium, these carp only floated there, silenced, appalled at all the things they would never do. They seemed alive only in how they were not dead.
They said I owed a phenomenal amount, several thousands of dollars, but I wasn’t in a position to challenge them. We never saw more than three men working in the guitar shop, a little cinderblock building we passed each day on our walk home from school. They kept short hours, and by the time we passed in the afternoons the doors would already be closed, the lights out.
One afternoon, I shattered the window and shoved my friend Carmen through the opening. He grabbed a couple of guitars and handed them to me, grabbed a couple more, then climbed back out. We ran, carrying them over the Rock Island Line tracks that divided us from everyone else in the world, down through a deserted brownfield whose toxic, muddy grasses after a rainstorm bubbled up the cleaned bones of small animals. And for the month before my thirteenth birthday, I’d push up a trap door in my bedroom closet ceiling and climb up into the hot, fiberglass insulated crawlspace of our attic. I’d open a hardshell case and stare at that guitar, while the overheated, over-insulated space creeped over my skin. I’d lift the instrument out of the red satin lining, feel the smooth lacquered neck in my hand and knew it would never be a part of my life anywhere but up here. It was forever sealed off inside the hot, irritating space, this compact hell above my bedroom, just as everything else was trapped on earth below.
We passed that guitar shop the following day just as we always did. They had closed, as usual, by that time of the afternoon. Around the building the air started to stink of burning oil and in the cold snap of the October air it smelled like guilt drawing all around me. They had only nailed a piece of plywood over the broken window. Nothing more, and it made the value of anything we’d done seem cheap and small. Now, a day after we’d broken in, I was finished with the place.
Monday, I walked home from school alone. I saw they’d put up shatterproof glass, and a red alarm sticker shaped like a police badge on a bottom corner of the window.
And then, in school, on my birthday, some cops took Carmen out of his wood shop class and drove him away. I knew I wasn’t far behind. When I came home that day, two detectives were sitting in the living room with my mother. It was all polite. They didn’t need to make a show of it. I wasn’t going anywhere.
The three Chinese cooks in the back came from Nanjing on some kind of special visa. They were mean and violent, but by the economics of a Chinese restaurant (where, at this rate, I would have to work for years to pay off my debt), it was far too expensive to hold them accountable for their meanness. And so they did what they wanted with a sort of wild, unchecked lawlessness. I never learned any of their names; they remained to me locked inside a nameless and malicious space, half hidden in the steam like some three-headed infernal creature chained to the floor. They spat at you and tossed boiling water as you passed, sneered and made a strange clicking sound with their teeth, significant only to themselves.
Steve Lu pretended they didn’t exist and they left him alone. But Steve’s wife existed in some other place. The Chinese cooks only smiled at her when she entered the kitchen. They laughed warmly when she staggered around the back, drunk and lewd, when she insulted them in words they didn’t understand. In her presence even the sound of their language seemed to soften around her. The clicking stopped. Occasionally I’d be out on the floor and I would hear the cooks applauding from behind the swing doors.
Chris drank every night freely, clumsily. I found her often out back by the trash, the tip of her cigarette glowing. I’d watch the dark around her move, the tulip glass of vodka catching a slip of light as it rose to her mouth. Then she’d come back inside and whisper terrible things in front of her husband, in front of me, sexual things, compromising things, and her tongue would slip a splinter in me, a sampling of the pain I supposed her husband might feel. But Steve Lu only walked away, moved to some other part of the room to deal with a detail on the floor, circling the room greeting regulars, occasionally dropping a check, or clearing a table one of us had neglected.
On New Year’s Eve the girls at the take-out counter in the back fed me plum wine all night long. The last hour or so I was nearly useless, though I couldn’t tell if this was apparent to anyone else. Now it was past midnight and I was bringing trash out to the back. The air in the kitchen was swollen with heat and the smells of boiled cabbage and pork and fried rice from the woks, the jets of steam from the dishwashing station, the push and pull of the evening. I passed through the back door as if some icy drape separated that kitchen from the outside world. I saw someone in the dark beyond the dumpster.
“Hey,” Chris said. Her voice sounded small. There was a champagne bottle in her hand. “Come here.” She held out the bottle.
I could taste her cigarette on the lip as I drank. I handed the bottle back. She leaned over to set it on the ground. Then, instead of rising, she lowered herself, kneeling in front of me. The sodium-vapor light fell on us where we stood, fell on her face and I felt all the more exposed, and saw that she didn’t notice, or didn’t mind. Her eyes looked up, checking me. Her face in the spread of light looked younger, closer to my age. My hand reached out, touched her hair. I didn’t know how to pull her away. Her face was shining, and then it was moving slowly in and out of its own shadow. I saw her in my house. Saw my mother laughing. I heard the voices of my parents arguing in our kitchen, saw my father staring at me. I began to tremble and the trembling grew as I tried to keep my body still. And then my teeth began to chatter.
She stopped and looked up. Her eyes had startled. She was holding me still with one hand, her other hand on my leg. I clenched my jaw but couldn’t stop my teeth or my trembling. Then her eyes softened, as if she’d settled into this interpretation of ardor, a recognition. She continued, her face moving in and out of its shadow more urgently. I couldn’t look at her. I closed my eyes and waited.
Maybe, when it was over, I felt something like love for her. I heard shouting from the cooks and clanking metal in the kitchen. She rose and brushed off her knees and took out a cigarette. She lit the cigarette, then went over to the back door of the kitchen. She took a couple of drags, tossed it, and went inside. The shouting stopped and I thought maybe it had been only in my imagination, a product of my agitated mind. I lifted the champagne bottle she’d left by the trash and drank all that was left. My teeth had stopped chattering. I noticed a faint steam in the air around me, then saw it was rising from my bare arms and face. I didn’t want to go back inside. Whatever I felt in the moment — love, or just a new kind of guilt, some cheap castoff of love whose intensity I would find repeated over and over again, the rest of my life — the feeling changed the moment I went back inside. The love or guilt, or whatever it was, turned from Chris to her husband, Steve Lu. I passed back through the kitchen door and the heat and steam felt like I’d pushed into a dream.
All of the last of the customers had gone and Steve Lu was over by the buffet table. That he knew, or that someone had seen, crossed my mind, and I began to shake again, felt something drop in me. He saw me, smiled, and called me over. He’d stripped the red polyester tablecloth off the table. The chafing dishes were stacked on the counter behind it, with a dozen little dented, cooling tins of canned heat. There was a teapot on the bare linoleum and a smudge of something beside it.
“I want you to see this,” he said. He dabbed a napkin in some of the weak tea and said: “Hot tea. Good for removing stains, you see?” He wiped the stain with a tea soaked rag, and the swipe began to dissolve. He looked up and said, “Oh. Happy New Year!” And then he chuckled.
That night I walked home from work like every night. My legs were thick and rudderless and I knew the walk would take longer than I wanted. The night air, cold and raw, smelled of burning chocolate. My ears pinched in the cold, and my head was sugary and defiant and brave. Occasionally a car would race by, someone yelling out the window or the radio thumping so loud it felt as if they were wishing me good fortune. The adrenaline from the exhaustion of the finished shift conspired with the plum wine and I wanted to break windows and thieve with impunity. I wanted my grand larceny back. I wanted to wander inside stranger’s lives and rob them of their past. I wanted the new year to celebrate me.
I’d find a damaged piece — the mahogany blank of a body or an unfinished neck — in the dumpster behind the guitar factory. Some flaw made it unacceptable, an unintended gouge in the wood or a small knot or pit in the grain that hadn’t been obvious until it was cut into rough shape. I’d bring that piece home and think about what it meant to me. Why it meant anything at all. Even if I couldn’t name what it was, it always meant something.
At work, Chris and I didn’t talk about it. I was just a busboy and she was a waitress — a friend of my mother’s, Steve Lu’s wife — and I was too young, anyway. She ignored me when she was near, stepped around me when she could. But occasionally I caught her across the room watching, as if staring through me, and I knew I was a space she had to pass into to get to somewhere beyond. I persuaded myself that she had needed me, that she would always need something like me. That wherever she ended up she would remember that she’d passed through me. She began to come in less often, and then stopped showing up at all. Steve Lu spent more time at the front on the phone, or pretending to write things in the reservations ledger, even on slow nights where it was clear he wasn’t taking reservations. From the busboy station I would see him through the fish tank between us, a bluish haze to his face, like some giant, gently animated figurine dwarfing all the other fish.
Then, one night, after Chris still hadn’t returned to New Moon, and Steve Lu hadn’t said anything about why, it felt as if her string of absences just disappeared her; as if this night she’d finally stopped existing anywhere. Steve Lu no longer smiled and moved around the room. He cleaned things a little too much, greeted the customers at the front a little too politely, as if quietly distracted by an approaching dream.
It had been a slow Friday night shift and now I was walking home. I had made less money than I’d hoped and was tallying the losses, the debt in my head. A car passed and slowed. Then it pulled to the side of the road and I saw Steve Lu lean his head out of the driver’s side.
“Hey,” he said. He waved me over: “Hey!”
I came up to the window.
“Get in!” he said, and I ran around the car to the passenger side, opened the door, and climbed in.
“Do you walk each night? How do I not know this? Ohhhh,” he said.
He left the window cracked halfway and took a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket. I recalled he’d once said, about the cigarettes: “Soft pack. They’re fresher.” He put the pack back in his pocket slowly, carefully — I don’t know why, but it seemed to me in a way suggesting a kind of conscience in the act. Of returning something to its rightful place. I thought maybe he was a little drunk.
At night all the strip malls looked different. The dark gave them the texture of variety. Or, on this night they did. I was noticing this as we drove and I saw too how driving in a car turned my walk into an endless series of strip malls, each broken by a little space, an old disused lot of trash, or a car mechanic’s shop, a solitary house or two that hadn’t been torn down yet.
Steve Lu said nothing, and so I did what I always did on my walks home, just listened to the voices in my head talking. Sometimes they sounded like me, they were me. Often I thought about how much I still owed my parents. The amount seemed so unreal. So impossible that it was as if I were floating in some kind of free fall where debt was just the air you breathe. The only thing my father had said when my mother called about the detectives was, “Why would you do that?” As if desire were accountable to logic. He really wanted to know, and my inability to answer him would stand between us the rest of our lives.
Steve Lu inhaled deeply from his cigarette, then tossed it out the window. In the passenger side mirror I watched it tumble and spark in the road behind us before flaring out in the distance.
“Can I have a cigarette?”
“Mmnh,” he said. He fished another out, handed it over, took one out for himself again, then plunged the button in the dash.
I thought about how my life seemed to end each night when I went to bed. Mornings had begun to surprise me with their loud light. I thought about schoolwork and my parents’ unfathomable ages. How one made it to such an age. The drive was quiet through it all. It was the quiet between two people who know each other so well it doesn’t sound like silence. I don’t know what Steve Lu was thinking. Maybe about his wife. Or about the taste of his cigarette. Then I stopped thinking, and as if prompted, the roofs and dimmed windows and the desolate strip mall parking lots more or less vanished. We were just driving in the dark now, past a forest preserve. I wanted to say something in the car. I wanted to tell Steve Lu what a good guy I thought he was. That I admired him. I like you, Steve Lu, I wanted to say.
“Are you from Nanjing?” I said: “Like the cooks?”
“Ha!” he said. He took a deep drag from his cigarette, exhaled: “No,” he said, and he smiled, as if the very idea that he could be from the same place as the cooks surprised him. “I’m from a small village,” he said. “There is a polytechnic there. I went to school, just after it was built. After that, I left. I came here. It was a long time ago. It has grown since. It’s big now.”
“You don’t go back?”
“No. It’s gone. It was a good place to leave.”
That was when it occurred to me that you could leave somewhere and not ever look back. That you could leave a place and someday say you’d forgotten it. The forest preserve ended, and the road opened out to the newly constructed cloverleaf of the interstate. Beyond, the lights of a giant shopping mall appeared, parked like a spaceship.
“Chris,” Steve Lu said. He let out the slightest breath.
“Is she okay?”
“Well,” he said. “It’s okay. She’s spending some time in St. Luke. Female problems. You know.”
I don’t know that I could have known, then. I was just a kid. Why someone with whatever it was, this condition he’d left so vague, would stay at a clinic. Maybe it was convenient, having me there to misunderstand, to not comprehend his life.
We pulled into my subdivision, wove around the unbuilt areas where the road passed through the large mountains of dug up earth, where the construction of new units had yet to be completed. Then the street evened out, flat and straight, flanked by Ranches and Cape Cods, the little front lawns, an occasional odd miniature Colonial rising up between them.
Steve Lu slowed the car, then paused at the one stop sign. A dog was moving along the gutter down the block. It looked ragged and strong. It moved slightly sideways, as if it had been hit by a car, and its healing bones had been permanently bent. Maybe it was just a coyote with mange. The car idled, waiting for the dog. I wondered if Steve Lu was afraid of it, or superstitious about something. The dog crossed the street, then hesitated at the end of a driveway. It just stood there, its muzzle raised, sniffing at the night air as Steve Lu and I watched. Or maybe Steve Lu was looking through the dog in the distance to somewhere else. Maybe everywhere he looked now he saw his wife.
Steve Lu took out the pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, the car still idling, but the pack fell from his hand as he tried to pinch a cigarette out. As if he’d forgotten I was there, that anyone was there in the car, he whispered, You so clumsy. For the first time since I’d known him he seemed to have a slight Chinese accent. He picked up the pack, took out a cigarette. He pushed the dash’s cigarette lighter in. Then the car moved forward through the small, desolate intersection. The dog was gone. A moment later we pulled up to my house.
“Well,” he said.
I thanked him for the ride, said goodnight. I opened the door and stepped out onto the grass strip in front of my house. The night air felt wet and warm inside the cold, like an unexpected spring day in the middle of winter. I shut the car door. Steve Lu was taking the cigarette lighter out of the dash, touching it to his cigarette. He was already dreaming, it seemed, he’d already forgotten about me. I walked up my lawn and at the front door looked back. The car was still there, and I saw then that Steve Lu hadn’t been dreaming. He was just waiting for me to get safely inside my house.
There he is, a shadow inside the car of my memory, raising his hand goodbye, the tip of that cigarette glowing and dimming, marking time, betraying his living pulse. Now the car is pulling forward, driving slowly away down the street.
A few weeks later I quit New Moon. My father had found a job for me at the radio station where he worked. Where he was an engineer — sometimes a substitute disk jockey, late at night. When I came into New Moon to quit, Steve Lu said he was sorry to see me go. Chris hadn’t come back. My mother hadn’t seen her either.
The new job wasn’t any more money than the tips at the restaurant. My debt would forever retreat, slippery, faster than me, outrunning its possible satisfaction. But my father thought the new job might put a different nature in my mind. Might put a sense of a future. A common sense I could share with him.
My dad was doing what he’d wanted to do, what he’d wanted ever since he was my age. I’d surely feel the same way: I believe that’s what he told himself. And, of course, he could keep an eye on me. He wanted to teach me his childhood hopes and a practical nature. He gave me an old electrical engineering book to study. Inside the worn red cover were pages of schematic diagrams, little lines and circles and indicators of flow, capacitance, resistance. The ways a current ran out its life through a planned route and brought something — light, sound, a voice, some impulse — to a natural conclusion. Each time I opened the book, his childhood devotion to electricity felt like the loneliest thing a kid could ever want to know. And the longer I worked there the more powerful the sense came to me that I didn’t have an aptitude for any of it.