Sleepwalking Through a Texas Childhood

An excerpt from NIGHTS WHEN NOTHING HAPPENED by Simon Han, recommended by Tony Earley

texas oil drill at night


cover of Nights When Nothing HappenedIn Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han, the Chengs live in a nice enough house on a nice enough cul-de-sac in Plano, Texas, but they are not from around there. Patty and Liang Cheng and their son, Jack, were born in China. Only the youngest Cheng, Annabel, was born in America. She sleepwalks through Plano at night; Jack, her “watcher” follows her through the dark streets. 

This excerpt is from the opening of the novel, in the fall of 2003, when Jack is eleven and Annabel is five. They are six years apart, “the span between them,” Jack observes, “never changing, though he felt that it should.” Annabel demands hundreds of kisses from their parents, takes up space in their bed and keeps them all from sleeping. Jack, meanwhile, is intensely aware of the ways he has changed from the small boy he was in Tianjin, who played with plastic swords, broke his grandparents’ vases, and stole sweets from street vendors. When he left Tianjin for Plano, Jack noticed his grandparents “had become undeniably, irrevocably old,” and concluded “[he] made his grandparents frail, too frail to come with him.” At eleven, Jack “took up so little space he might as well still be in Tianjin.” Annabel, oblivious, waking and sleeping, stumbles through their theoretically safe suburb, pulling her family toward misunderstanding and violence. Jack sees everything, but can’t stop any of it. 

Does trouble find the Chengs because failing to be “American enough,” not understanding enough, makes them easy targets, or does it find them indiscriminately, because that’s what trouble does? A lesser book would provide an easy answer, but Nights When Nothing Happened isn’t that kind of book. Simon Han knows that the only way to accurately describe the Big is by compassionately examining the Small. 

– Tony Earley
Author of Mr. Tall: A Novella and Stories 

Sleepwalking Through a Texas Childhood

An excerpt from Nights When Nothing Happened
by Simon Han

Jack Cheng knew about protection. He knew who gave it and who needed it, and he knew that he was the one who’d found his sister curled around the toilet one night, sleepwalking into the swinging kitchen door another night, and that was a calling.

Most nights had limped along since his parents began putting Annabel to sleep in her own room instead of theirs. When sleep finally came to them, they would snore the way kings and queens with servants to adjust their pillows all night long snore, dreaming dreams that were not anyone’s right to interrupt. At an hour when the house held its breath and waited for something to happen, Jack stayed up and read books in which characters died, literally, of fright. The sound of a leaf scraping across the sidewalk could draw him downstairs in socks until he reached hardwood. Then, realizing that his sister was still safe upstairs, he would stand in the dark before his mother’s favorite sheepskin rug and imagine that the rattling and scratching he was hearing behind the walls came from beavers, though he had never seen a beaver and confused them with raccoons.

Late one night in November, a steady pounding woke him up. He lay under the covers for some time, remembering that his mother had not been home when he went to bed, and wondering if she had come back from work or he had dreamed it. Downstairs, he found the front door open to the street. Had the calling moved beyond toilets and kitchens? He wandered outside without slapping on shoes, his mind still muddled with dream sounds. On the sidewalk, he skirted a pile of dog shit and an issue of The Dallas Morning News still wrapped in yellow film. The houses on both sides of Plimpton Court stood like tombs, each split down the middle by a cobbled pathway, one fledgling oak or elm on either side. In front of two houses, Christmas lights already spiraled up the thin trunks and framed the eaves, the work of professionals. From a balcony, an inflatable Santa raised a mitten in his direction and did not lower it. Jack had made a habit during the day of crouching by the window in the piano room and waving hello back, which always sent Annabel into fits of giggles. It had not occurred to him until now that the Santa could be waving good‑bye. He kept on, avoiding its eyes.

He found the first of Annabel’s glow‑in‑the‑dark slippers on the Brenners’ front lawn. Crouching down, he brushed grass clippings from the plush cotton. He pressed a hand on a sunken patch of grass. He pressed here, he pressed there. A strange thought came to him: maybe the heartbeat he was feeling did not belong to him but to the grass, and to the earthworms slithering beneath. If he followed the trail of heartbeats between the Brenners’ and the Driscolls’ he would find the other slipper. He rushed forward, staying low and close to a brown fence at the corner of Plimpton and Main that still gave off paint fumes. There was no time to pull up his socks. The cracks between the planks glowed a phosphorescent blue. A swimming pool. There was something about a lighted swimming pool at midnight that reminded Jack of murder and intrigue.

A car passed on Main Street, its headlights flashing through the fence and illuminating the leaves floating in the pool. His sister could be drifting toward this vacant stretch of road where high schoolers tore through in trucks with wheels bigger than her, blazing a shortcut out to Sheridan. He followed the path he imagined her taking, between houses and down alleyways, until he reached the sewage creek that cut through the community. During the summer, he remembered, the feet and underside of a duck had bobbed there for days. On the grass that sloped up from the creek, he spotted the glow of the other slipper.

His sister stood a few yards away, on the bridge that overlooked the creek. Under a towering steel streetlight, she swayed slightly. Her head was lifted, and a white glow bloomed from her neck, up to the stretch of baby fat under her chin. Her eyes were closed, as if she were basking in the pool of light. If Jack did not know better, he would have thought a spaceship had beamed her down to earth. He sidled beside her, a slipper in each hand. He was Annabel’s protector, but sometimes he did not know what to do with his hands.

“Hear me in there? Knock‑knock?”

Annabel blinked. “You found me, Daddy.”

A few dead crickets still clung to the lamp. The stink of the summer’s crickets had carried through the end of fall, and perhaps would last through a winter that never arrived. It was no wonder he’d thought American air to be unsafe. In those early years in Plano, Jack had held his breath around diapers and hospitals and graveyards and urinals and police stations and fertilizer and roadkill and cameras and his father.

“Daddy,” his sister said.

“Okay,” he said.

“Daddy. Daddy. Daddy. Dad—”

“I heard you.”

Now, that call again. That Breathe, Jack. That Take your sister away, Jack. Away from the light. Away from the image of dead crickets falling, as faintly as the first snow in China, into her little mouth. It was a new day, and they needed to go back: to the sprinkler‑fed grass, the potted mums, the vanilla‑scented pinecones that would remind him, in any season, of this place he’d lived in Texas. Take her back, Jack, take her back.

This fall of 2003, Jack was eleven and his sister five, the span between them never changing, though he felt that it should. Six years contained an entire life. They equaled, he reminded himself, the number of years that he’d lived in China. The more years Jack had accumulated in Plano, the more he’d shed of that first life, and in the days before Annabel began sleepwalking, what he recalled most clearly was his own daydreaming, perched by the fourth‑story window of his grandparents’ apartment in Tianjin.

His earliest memories were of looking down at older buildings, while his later ones were of looking up: craning his neck toward condos and offices that sprouted in a matter of months, crammed in staggered formation so that where one building ended in the skyline, the next began. They bled into his view of the muddy Hai River, the uniformed street sweepers, the market from which every few days his grandparents wheeled groceries home. There went the older buildings, the greenhouses growing like hair on their roofs. There went green itself.

The older and stronger Jack became, the more he saw the wobbly legs that held up his city. Beyond the high‑rises were the cobblestoned streets flanked by forts and villa‑style houses, complete with red tile roofs that Italian invaders had erected. The giant cross on a French cathedral bore down on pedestrians, slinging sun into their eyes. A Japanese house with manicured gardens had once been home to the last emperor of China, a traitor who’d sold out his country to the enemy. There were German barracks, British hotels, Austro‑Hungarian mansions. Jack could not point on his grandparents’ globe to where any of these invaders were from, but he could picture their faces, grinning demonically in the water swirling in Lǎolao’s mop pail, or in the faded brown rings at the bottom of Lǎoye’s teacup. With a swing of his sword, he knocked back bowls of their congealing soy milk, stabbed the heart of the electric fan that made the summers bearable. Lǎolao and Lǎoye saved their heads by ducking. They cursed the day they’d bought him the cheap plaything. What did it matter that Jack was defending them? They cared only about minor hazards like crossing a street, ordering Jack to hold on to them. When he shattered a vase made in Belgium, they fought back. Their palms cut deeper than swords; it hurt to sit down at the dinner table. Sometimes they picked up the phone and, instead of bickering with the milkman, reported him to his parents.

His parents. His parents in America. Jack saw them as they were in the photograph that leaned against a tin of sunflower seeds on the cabinet. His mother’s hair pulled back by a clip, a large vein visible on her forehead. Her eyes narrow and level, as if she were concentrating fiercely on not dropping the baby in her lap. She never scolded Jack as harshly as Lǎolao and Lǎoye demanded. Do the shoes I had Dàjìu buy for you still fit? she would ask. Are you eating the pork I told Lǎolao to cook? Have you read the English book I asked Èrjìu to bring from school? When his mother’s words grew tiresome, he used his grandparents as models to imagine, on the other end of the receiver, her moving mouth: Lǎoye’s long, drooping jaw lifted and chiseled into a robust square, Lǎolao’s puckered lips pulled into a taut line instead of a perpetually surprised O. His father was harder to construct because he did not come from Lǎolao and Lǎoye— did not come from anyone or anywhere, it seemed, his past in the countryside muffled by the low voices other adults used when talking about him, saying things like those people and places like that. In the photograph leaning against the tin, Jack’s father wore a suit so big his shoulders appeared inflated, though his dress shirt underneath was too small, the collar unbuttoned to give his thick neck room to breathe. While baby Jack and his mother looked straight at the camera, his father stood beside the chair, staring off at a different angle, which Jack once projected with a ruler to about five centimeters from the upper-right corner of the frame.

“You’re a damned rascal!” Lǎolao said.

“You’ll make us die early!” Lǎoye said.

“Time to send you to America!” Lǎolao said.

“You think we’re bluffing?” Lǎoye said.

His grandparents, for all their embellishments, eventually reached a moment of truth. They dragged Jack onto a bus to the Beijing airport, where they delivered him into the trust of two family friends, childless āyís whose faces he would forget within months. At the security check, he looked back at his grandparents and realized that they had become undeniably, irrevocably old. As Lǎolao waved from a distance, he could see the redness of her palm and the swelling of her fingers; perhaps all the times he’d squeezed her wrist crossing streets had cut off the blood in her hands from the rest of her body. Lǎoye’s shoulders hunched forward, and without a cane he teetered at the edge of an imagined cliff, helpless in the midst of people who rolled their luggage past him, not knowing how easy it would be to knock him over. Jack had made his grandparents frail, too frail to come with him. When they turned their faces away and dabbed their eyes with a single shared handkerchief, he wondered if they regretted sending him away. Maybe it wasn’t all his fault for being a dǎodànguǐ, maybe his leaving was, as he’d been taught to believe, inevitable. He was going to live with his parents, who seemed to him not people so much as a destination he did not want to visit.

But he would. He would have to. In the plane, the āyí to his left asked him if he was as eager as she was to try airplane food for the first time, and the āyí to his right let him in on a rumor about the otherworldly flushing speeds of the toilets. When the plane crawled backward from the terminal, the two women smiled and reached past him, their fingers meeting in the space behind his head. One āyí stroked the side of the other’s hand with her thumb, and the other extended a finger to tickle a vein under the wrist, and in the glimpses Jack allowed himself to take, their faces carried another message, shrouded in a language he could not access, lips that moved with words he could not hear.

Then from the ceiling, a voice spoke through warbled static, addressing the passengers first in Mandarin, then in English. Please direct your attention to the flight attendants for an important safety demonstration. Outside, the people wearing orange vests and waving orange sticks disappeared, replaced by a runway dressed up with meticulously spaced lights. There are several emergency exits on this aircraft. Following the voice’s instructions, Jack pulled out the laminated card in front of him, on which cartoon people encountered endless terrors but faced them without fear, without any feeling at all. Remember to secure your oxygen mask first before assisting your child. Where was he going, that the journey there could be so treacherous? After the smiling flight attendants began to blow into tubes on their life vests, Jack leaned forward and hugged his legs in the bracing position of the cartoon people. He did not move when one āyí placed her hand on his back and moved it in steady circles. We remind you not to tamper with, disable, or destroy the smoke detectors. He stared down, ignoring the āyí’s hand and focusing on the card he’d dropped. In the last panel there was a boy, a smaller version of the cartoon man behind him. He wanted nothing more than to whoosh down the giant yellow slide with them, his arms pointed stiffly forward, halfway to solid ground.

He would take other flights, hear other safety demonstrations. But five years later, on the first day of middle school, when his teacher stood at the front of the room and ordered twenty‑three sixth graders not to say kill, it was that voice Jack would remember, arriving over warbled static, and the English that followed. That feeling of being in a cartoon.

“Do not say die,” his English teacher said. “Do not say stab, murder, choke, shoot, or bomb. Especially bomb.” Mr. Morris rolled up his sleeves. Veins snaked up his arms and under his shirt, like those of bodybuilders or the elderly—Mr. Morris could pass for either. “Never say bomb.”

It was August. Jack sat at his new desk‑chair, not sure what to do with his legs. The formation of rows and columns left him feeling exposed. And girls—some wore perfume. Scents welled from below their necklines, calling back the candied fruit that he’d once swiped from the street vendors outside his grandparents’ apartment. He had not thought about the taste of glazed strawberries and pineapples and shānzhā for so long, the way he’d slid them up and off the skewer with his teeth. And the vendors, the spittle in their mouths as they raised their newspapers to whack him.

The girl in front of him turned around, the end of her ponytail whipping the top of his hand, to pass back a stack of letters, each addressed to the parents and signed by the principal. On his way to America, Jack remembered, he had carried a letter, too. A letter from his parents. A letter to prove that he belonged to parents, written in English.

“Is punch okay?” a boy asked from the back of the classroom.

“You can probably say punch,” Mr. Morris said.

“What about assassinate?”

Assassinate is usually reserved for public figures.”

“What about manslaughter?”

Manslaughter,” Mr. Morris said, as if trying out a name for a newborn. He fingered the swirl of his tie. “Well, manslaughter is not a verb. Speaking of verbs.”

A voice behind Jack said, “I’m scared.” Heads swiveled around, but no one could identify the speaker. Fingers were pointed in opposing directions, giggles shushed. After class, Jack wondered if he had been the speaker. If somehow he hadn’t known.

Jack should not have been scared. His parents had decided to live in Plano in order not to be scared. Plano had the lowest crime rate in Texas, highly ranked schools, churches bigger than schools, lighted tennis courts, malls that closed before 9:00 p.m. After he’d joined his parents, his mother had called his grandparents to let them know that he was here, he was safe. When a forgetful Lǎolao had asked where here was, she said near Dallas. Later, when she introduced Jack to their neighbors, she said that he was from near Beijing. Jack had wondered then if his homes were not only safe, but imagined.

He did not know, even by middle school, that in the late 1990s this affluent suburb had been dubbed “the heroin capital of America.” Nor that in the early ’80s, it had been called “the suicide capital of America.” Every year, a new wave of residents diluted the collective memory of the city, like fresh customers unwittingly enlisted in a company’s rebranding. Just say no was as much as his teachers were willing to tell him. No drugs, no suicide, no fights, no sex, no drinking, no depression, no slacking, and now, no saying, You wanna die? No more, I’m gonna kill you. And though no one had taken those threats seriously before, banning the words morphed them into something serious. Something threatening.

That night, his mother brought the letter to his room. She lay at the foot of the bed, the balls of her feet pressed into the carpet. Lǎoye had talked about how, as a child, she’d walk over the knots of his back. “Should I worry?” she asked.

His mother had always been a bony person, a woman of acute angles and protrusions. In the photograph propped against the tin of sunflower seeds, baby Jack had seemed eager to get off her lap. He had not seen the picture since he’d left, but having his mother near made him want to remember her, the way she’d been when she was far.

Mom,” he said.

Jack leaned against the headboard with another of his old Choose Your Own Adventure books in his lap. The books were too easy for him, but it was nice to fall asleep before reaching The End. When there were multiple endings in a book, the one he arrived at always left him bereft, though he could not say of what. He lost his page. A few ends of his mother’s hair fell over his toes. What would it feel like to touch his mother’s face with his feet? A privilege reserved, perhaps, for babies and toddlers, who would grow up unable to remember what it had felt like to touch their mothers’ faces with their feet.

Some children graduate to kisses. Like Annabel, who insisted on delivering one hundred each night before sleeping. She’d just started kindergarten at a new Montessori‑inspired school, and their parents were using the transition to try to make her sleep in her own room. Was she the reason their parents never kissed each other? Was he? They had probably kissed more when it was only the two of them in Houston. In Tianjin, he’d pictured his parents in America funneling rice into their mouths and swaying to Kenny G and dozing off in front of the TV, but not until Annabel was born had he thought about them kissing. Now his father was across the hall, tucking Annabel in. Surely he’d let her drag out her kisses. One hundred and two, one hundred and three. Jack imagined Annabel pulling his father back to bed, her hand clamped around a finger; he imagined his father pretending she was stronger than she was. Once she started crying, he would not be able to leave. It would be another long night. In the morning, Jack would run his hand across the mattress, the dips here and there.

His mother dug her elbows into his bed and pushed herself up. Tomorrow, before Jack or the birds had woken up, she would be gone, and no one in the house would remark on her absence; it had become normal again to start the day without her. Half of his mother was already on its way out of the room. She reached for the fan switch but changed her mind. Her finger hung in the air as if to say, This is a fan switch. This is a wall. “Close the fan,” she said.

Turn off the fan.”

“Good night, jīn gǒu’r.”

Gold dog, his mother called him. The dog to ensure he’d grow up healthy and strong, a humbling nickname, only she’d added the gold. Gold, golden, goldest, she’d say, as if Jack’s growing up were a series of escalating adjectives. The woman had not flinched at the bad reports his grandparents had made about him. The boy who’d joined her in this country did not say bad words, let alone banned words. He did not break expensive vases, or steal from poor street vendors. He did not cling to her. He did not dare sleep with her. Here was Jack, a boy who took so little space he might as well still be in Tianjin.

As his mother left the room, he shut his eyes. A few nights later, he would find Annabel lying on her side by the toilet across the hall. She would be sleeping deeply, her arms hugging the toilet’s base. Kneeling closer to her, he would spot faint yellow streaks along the tiles, discarded nail clippings. But the bath mat was soft, and as he lifted her head from it he would remember not China but a busy aisle in Home Depot, where his mother had pressed that softness to her face. She’d closed her eyes in the middle of the store, rubbed her cheek from one corner of the mat to the other. Strangers had looked over. He’d assumed then that the mat was for his parents’ bathroom, but when they got back, his father brought it upstairs, telling Jack to be careful because Turkish cotton was not easy to wash.

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