Digging to Indochina

Digging to Indochina: from Chapter One

Bryan’s sister, Ivy, ran off the day after their father’s birthday.

John MacKenzie would have been forty-six years old. Every year since his death, at Ivy’s command, because their mother had stopped baking, Bryan made a birthday cake from their grandmother’s famous marble pound cake recipe. He had no memory of eating the cake when John MacKenzie was alive, but Ivy assured him it was their father’s favorite and they’d all loved it. She showed Bryan photographic proof–their mother, Carol, fork poised above her slice; Ivy herself pushing a generous chunk toward their father’s laughing mouth; Bryan in his high chair, fists full of soggy crumbs, chin and cheeks plastered with chocolate.

Bryan would always wonder how his cake measured up. He never minded Ivy telling him to make it. But always, after breaking the third or fourth egg (the recipe called for a dozen), he’d feel the beginning of a sharp tightening in his stomach, and the crack of eggshell merged with the sound of the first eggs he’d learned to crack, his mother’s hands over his, the satisfying slip of clean egg into the bowl, two broken pieces of shell whole in his small hands, his mother’s body warm against his back as he stood on a kitchen chair, dishtowel an impromptu apron clothespinned at his neck, proud little boy unaware of what the fifteen-year-old Bryan knew came next–his father, swooping down, yanking at the towel; the snap of the clothespin shooting across the kitchen; the crunch of eggshell in suddenly clenched fists; the clatter of the overturned chair; the sputtering of a small heart as Johnny laughed a scary laugh and tossed him too high in the air.

Bryan didn’t remember eating the cake, but he remembered trying to make sense of his father’s words: “No son of mine wears an apron. You turning him into a pussy? Get Ivy in here to help with the cooking.”

Carol had shouted back, reached for their son, picked up the chair. She must have won the argument because Bryan kept on in the kitchen. He could break an egg with one hand and knew his dead grandmother’s recipe by heart.

All the old photos showed happy people. The only record of the raging fights between their parents was the mutable one of memory. Ivy and Bryan carried their own versions of those short years as a family of four, more distinct than mere variations on a recipe, more like the difference between chocolate and vanilla.

This year, when Ivy demanded cake their mother said, “Enough is enough! Your father’s been dead ten years.”

“Not to me!” Ivy yelled back before slamming out of the house.

“She makes him out to be a saint,” Carol had muttered. Bryan wanted to say something, but put the flour away instead. Ivy and his mother weren’t fighting about cake, but about Carol’s date with Neal Richards. For weeks Carol had been raving over the flowers Neal sent her at work. Then the excited twitter when the phone rang. You’d think she was talking about Robert Redford, her favorite movie star, not a middle-aged high school shop teacher with a fringe of hair, a big belly, and glasses thicker than Bryan’s. Anyway, his mother could have saved her breath–Ivy didn’t understand “enough.” Add her loud mouth and you’ve got it, the recipe for his sister. Ivy. Poison Ivy, the neighborhood kids used to tease.

A day later Ivy was gone with Gil Thompson, a guy with rotten teeth and a worse temper. She’d talked about getting out of Rivertown for so long no one heard her anymore, like you get used to the sound of traffic on a busy street and don’t notice until it stops. She left behind a quiet so heavy it pressed Carol’s head to her folded arms on the kitchen table, beside the untouched macaroni and cheese Bryan had made. From scratch, he never used a mix.


The police said they couldn’t do anything–Ivy hadn’t been gone long enough and besides, did Carol have any idea how many seventeen-year-old girls were out there not wanting to be found? Bryan, glad to hear about those other girls, glad Ivy wasn’t alone as she wandered through vast country searching for who knew what with a creep she just met, looked at his mother slumped in her chair and felt the kitchen walls tighten around him. “We don’t have any idea who this guy is? Do we?” His mother’s eyes begged.

Bryan had only seen Gil once, at the mall, arm around Ivy like he owned her, Ivy leaning into him like there was nowhere else she’d rather be. He was tall with big shoulders, beaklike nose, a dark tooth in front, tattoos across his knuckles–letters Bryan couldn’t make out, and piercing blue eyes so bright it hurt when he looked at you.

“Why did I ever let her hang around that pool hall?” Carol moaned. Bryan knew trying to keep Ivy from Rivertown Billiards would be like trying to keep bread dough on a radiator from rising.

Ivy’s note lay on the edge of the table. “Don’t look for me,” it said. “I’ve got to get out of here before I go crazy. Gil left his stuff in the basement. Don’t worry, Mom. It’s all neatly packed in one small box. I know exactly what I’m doing. I’ll be fine. I’ll send a postcard.” No signature.

She’d wanted to leave since she was seven, that summer the concrete slab fell on their dad. He’d been working on the new high school, the one Bryan went to now. Ivy hated every minute she spent inside those cement walls; “How can any asshole expect me to learn in the building that killed my father?” She yelled at Bryan for liking school, for not being as mad as she was

That terrible summer their dad lay in a coma, Grandma Harrington came from Pennsylvania and wedged herself in a lawn chair, her feet in the plastic pool Bryan had outgrown, peering at Ivy and him over The Weekly World News as Ivy told Bryan to dig faster, work harder, on their tunnel to Indochina. Other kids dug to China, but Ivy wanted to dig to Vietnam. She said Indochina was another word for it. She wanted to see where their father had fought in the war before they were even born, before he even knew their mother. Johnny had told Ivy he couldn’t talk about it. You had to have been there. So, of course, she wanted to go. Bryan didn’t, but he was the lion to her lion tamer, student to her teacher, customer to her waitress, patient to her doctor, slave to her master. She said dig, he dug. He knew the core of the earth burned with molten rock. He didn’t want to go anywhere, but he was more afraid of Ivy’s temper than of burning or being miles away from home. After the funeral, when Grandma left and the ground finally froze, Ivy gave up. Bryan was glad.

That summer would have been different if Grandma MacKenzie, the supposedly kinder grandmother, the one with the cake recipe, the one whose house they lived in, had been alive to take care of them instead. When neighbors murmured what a blessing it was she hadn’t lived to see her only child die so young, seven-year-old Ivy narrowed her eyes at them and hissed words that made them flinch. Bryan couldn’t remember the words exactly, but he could picture the ladies’ shocked expressions and just thinking about their gentle powdered faces, felt his stomach clutch the way it did whenever his sister used her power on a grown up. She’d probably made some caustic remark about Grandma IJ MacKenzie dying just before she was born and never knowing Bryan or Ivy either.

The refrigerator hummed. His mother whimpered. He had to get out of the house full of Ivy’s absence, but he couldn’t leave his mother alone, waiting for the phone to ring. He slapped his harmonica against his thigh like he did whenever he was nervous, paced the kitchen, the hallway, ending up with no jacket or gloves outside on the cold front porch. The houses along both sides of the deserted street glowed in the early winter dark. Families would be sitting together around tables eating dinner or in their living rooms watching TV or, maybe they were scattered throughout their houses–someone in the bedroom doing homework, someone loading the dishwasher, someone else chatting on the phone. They could yell a sister’s name, and if she didn’t answer it only meant her music was on too loud or the bath water was running.

“I’ve got to get warm, Bryan,” Ivy had said, days before she actually left. “I want to see some things, manatees, flamingoes. Coconuts and oranges growing on trees.” She’d squeezed his shoulder. “Besides, I’m sick of that bitch trying to run my life.” Bryan continued grating cheese, not looking at her.

He watched the father across the street carry a bag of groceries into the house. Bryan blew on his fingers and stomped his feet wondering if he could have, should have, done something to stop his sister. He didn’t blame her for wanting to leave. If he had the chance, he’d go to Hollywood. He’d have a cooking show. He’d teach people how to make meals in one pot out of whatever they had in their cupboards and refrigerators. “Kitchen Alchemy,” he’d call it. He’d show up at people’s houses with his camera crew. “Hi, I’m Bryan MacKenzie, kitchen alchemist. I’m here to make dinner for YOU.” He’d push past the astonished homeowner. The camera would follow him into the kitchen and focus on the inside of the refrigerator. He’d make gourmet meals out of limp celery, eggs, parmesan cheese. People would beg him to knock on their doors.