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The Frangipani Hotel

The Frangipani Hotel

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Add This - The Frangipani Hotel

Written by Violet KupersmithAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Violet Kupersmith

  • Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
  • On Sale: April 1, 2014
  • Price: $25.00
  • ISBN: 978-0-8129-9331-8 (0-8129-9331-4)
Also available as an eBook and a trade paperback.
EXCERPT

BOAT STORY

“Here, con, I cut up a đu đủ just for you.”

“Oh no, Grandma, I—­”

“It’s very ripe!”

“Gra—­”

“And very good for you too!”

“Grandma! You know I can’t eat papaya. It makes my stomach hurt.”

“Tck! It goes in the trash can then. Such a waste.”

“Wait! Why can’t you eat it? Or feed it to Grandpa?”

“Grandpa and I are sick of it—­we’ve eaten nothing but đu đủ for two straight days because I bought six from that Chinese grocer out in Bellaire last week and now they’re starting to go bad.”

“Ha! Why did you buy so many?”

“I was hoping for visitors to share them with. But no one comes to see me. Everyone is too busy—­so American! Always working, working, and no time for Grandma. Not even your mother stopped by this week. And the only reason you’re here is a silly high school project.”

“All right, all right. But I’m only gonna eat a bit, okay? Just this little piece right here. And then we’ll do the interview . . . Oh God, it’s so slimy . . .”

“Wonderful! Yes, chew, chew—­”

“You don’t need to tell me to chew!”

“It’s disgusting to speak with your mouth full, con. Chew, chew. Swallow! See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? And it will make your hair shiny and give you good skin. Have another piece.”

“My stomach feels weird already, Grandma. But I’ll have one more piece while you talk, deal?”

“Oh, making deals now, hah? And I thought you weren’t sneaky like the other grandchildren. You’ll start gambling next. What kind of story did you want me to tell you, con?”

“I’m after the big one.”

“Oh dear.”

“Leaving Vietnam. The boat journey. That’s what I want to write about.”

“Ask your mother.”

“I did, but she was too young when it happened. She only remembers the refugee camp and arriving in Houston.”

“Ask your father then.”

“He came over on a plane in the eighties, and that’s not half as exciting. That’ll get me a B if I’m lucky. But your boat person story? Jackpot. Communists! Thai pirates! Starvation! That’s an A-­plus story.”

“Oh, is that what it is?”

“Mom said you don’t like talking about the war, but I should know about my past, shouldn’t I? That’s what this school project is about—­learning your history, exploring your culture, discovering where you came from, that kind of thing.”

“You really want to know the country you came from?”

“Yes.”

“And you want a story about me on a boat?”

“Yes!”

“Fine. I will tell you a boat story. It begins on a stormy day at sea.”

“Wait, wait! Let me get my pencil . . . Okay, go!”

“The waves were vicious, the wind was an animal, and the sky was dung-­colored.”

“Hang on a second. Where were you?”

“On the boat, of course.”

“Well yeah, but is this 1975? We are talking about 1975, right?”

“Child, when you’re my age you don’t bother remembering years.”

“But this is at the very end of the war?”

“Did that war ever really end, con?”

“Look, Grandma, I just need to get the dates straight! How old were you then?”

“Around the same age as you; I married young. Perhaps a couple years older.”

“I think you’re getting confused. If Mom was seven when she left, you had to have been way older than sixteen.”

“Don’t be silly. I remember everything perfectly. This was the day after my wedding. My hair was long and shiny—­it was all the đu đủ I ate growing up, I’m telling you, con—­and my teeth weren’t bad; they said I could’ve made a better match than a fisherman. But I did not care about money. Even though we were poor, at the wedding I wore a silk dress embroidered with flowers, and gold earrings that my mother-­in-­law gave me. After the ceremony I gathered my belongings in a bag and moved onto Grandpa’s sampan.”

“Okay, we’re definitely not on the same page . . .”

“Quiet, con, you asked for my boat story, so now listen to me tell it.”

“Your grandpa spent our first night as husband and wife throwing up the two bottles of rice wine he drank at the wedding reception. In the morning his head was foggy, so he untied the boat and steered us out to sea without paying attention to the signs: the taste of the wind, the shape of the clouds, the strange way the birds were flying. He cast his nets but kept drawing them back empty, and so we drifted farther and farther from land. By the time he noticed how strong the waves were, we could no longer see the shore.

“The storm began, rain drilling down on us as we crouched together beneath a ratty tarp. Our poor sampan bounced on the water like a child’s toy. Waves sloshed over the sides, slapping me in the face, the salt burning my nostrils. When our tarp was torn away with a scream of wind, Grandpa and I dug our fingernails into the floorboards of the boat, even though we knew it would do no good in the end.

“‘When we are thrown into the water, cling to my back,’ Grandpa shouted, mostly to hide his fear. ‘I will swim us home.’ His breath was still stale with rice wine.

“But this boat is our home, I thought. I looked out over the waves that I knew would soon swallow us up. Then to my surprise, I saw a small dark shape bobbing off in the distance. I wiped my eyes and looked again—­it was coming toward us. ‘Another boat!’ I cried out, overjoyed, thinking we would be rescued after all. Grandpa braced himself against the side of the hull and stood up, waving his arms and yelling as loud as he could. I grabbed on to his feet to keep him from toppling overboard, and together we waited to be saved.

“But as we watched, we realized that the thing approaching us was not a boat after all. I blinked and squinted, not wanting to believe my eyes, hoping that the rain was blurring my vision. Grandpa stopped waving and went silent, his face puzzled at first, then terrified.

“It was a man, not a boat. He was walking upright over the water—­I swear it on my mother’s dirt grave in Ha Tinh—­staggering across the sea as if it was just unruly land. Perhaps I cannot say that it was a man, for it was clear that he was long dead, and from the looks of it had met his end by drowning; the body was bloated and the flesh that hadn’t already been eaten by fishes was a terrible greenish-­black color. The chest had been torn wide open, and I could see ribbons of kelp threaded among the white bones of its rib cage. Whatever spirit had reanimated the corpse must have been a feeble one, for the body moved clumsily, legs stiff but head dangling loose as it struggled to keep its balance on the angry waves. Grandpa sank down to his knees next to me, and we peered over the gunwale in helpless horror as the body tottered closer and closer.

“When there were only a few feet of churning black ocean left between it and our boat, the corpse stopped. It swayed before us like a drunk man—­and for some reason it stood on tiptoe, the decomposing feet arched like a dancer’s—­dipping and rising with us on each wave but never breaking the skin of the water.

“Grandpa and I waited for the body to move. To talk. To pounce on us. But it simply stood there. I felt it was watching us even though its eye sockets were empty—­for the face is where the fish nibble first, you know. We crouched in the boat until our knees hurt, all the while under the sightless gaze of this unnatural thing. Grandpa would have vomited in fright had his stomach not already been empty from throwing up all night. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore; if I was going to die, I wanted to get it over with.

“‘Spirit!’ I called out, my voice so small against the storm. ‘What is it that you want?’

“The drowned man’s head flopped down to one side and it turned its rotting palms out to me, as if to show that it didn’t know, either.

“ ‘My husband and I have nothing to give you; no rice or incense to make an offering with. We do not know how to lay you to rest.’ A wave slopped over the side of the boat and I received a mouthful of salt water. I spat it out and continued. ‘We are just two wet and weary souls, like you.’

“I didn’t have to shout these last words, for the wind had begun to quiet down. The rain was no longer beating on my skull and the back of my neck.

“With the jerky movements of a puppet on strings, the corpse lifted its head once more and bent its knees. It had no eyes, no lips or cheeks, and there was only a little bony ridge where the nose had been, yet it still looked sad. Poor thing: lost, half-­eaten, and a little too alive to be completely dead. It spun on its tiptoes, then began wandering away across the waves once more. Grandpa thought it went south, and I was sure it went west, though we were probably both wrong, for we were still dazed by the storm. It did not turn to look back at us, and after a while we couldn’t see it any longer.

“The waves were far from calm and the sky too dark for us to be optimistic, but Grandpa began steering us toward what we hoped was the shore. When we finally made it back to land we were shaking, but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t that thing we had met out on the water that frightened us, but the fact that we had gotten away so easily. Because what we suspected then was that there would be a price to pay later. I look at it this way: On that stormy day the spirits did not take us, but they wrote our names down in their book, and we knew they would eventually come collecting.”



“Grandma! What the hell was that?”

“Watch your mouth, con.”

“Seriously, if Mom heard you talking like that, she’d think you were losing it and send you right to an old folks’ home!”

“Well, now you know why I never tell your mother any of my stories.”

“What am I supposed to do with a story like that? I’m going to fail history! And your papaya is giving me a stomachache!”

“Con, if you were listening you would have learned almost everything you need to know about your history. The first rule of the country we come from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want.”

“But I want the real story!”

“That was a real story. All of my stories are real.”

“No! You know what I mean, I know you do! Why can’t you tell me how you escaped?”

“It’s simple, child: Did we ever really escape?”

BOAT STORY

“Here, con, I cut up a đu đủ just for you.”

“Oh no, Grandma, I—­”

“It’s very ripe!”

“Gra—­”

“And very good for you too!”

“Grandma! You know I can’t eat papaya. It makes my stomach hurt.”

“Tck! It goes in the trash can then. Such a waste.”

“Wait! Why can’t you eat it? Or feed it to Grandpa?”

“Grandpa and I are sick of it—­we’ve eaten nothing but đu đủ for two straight days because I bought six from that Chinese grocer out in Bellaire last week and now they’re starting to go bad.”

“Ha! Why did you buy so many?”

“I was hoping for visitors to share them with. But no one comes to see me. Everyone is too busy—­so American! Always working, working, and no time for Grandma. Not even your mother stopped by this week. And the only reason you’re here is a silly high school project.”

“All right, all right. But I’m only gonna eat a bit, okay? Just this little piece right here. And then we’ll do the interview . . . Oh God, it’s so slimy . . .”

“Wonderful! Yes, chew, chew—­”

“You don’t need to tell me to chew!”

“It’s disgusting to speak with your mouth full, con. Chew, chew. Swallow! See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? And it will make your hair shiny and give you good skin. Have another piece.”

“My stomach feels weird already, Grandma. But I’ll have one more piece while you talk, deal?”

“Oh, making deals now, hah? And I thought you weren’t sneaky like the other grandchildren. You’ll start gambling next. What kind of story did you want me to tell you, con?”

“I’m after the big one.”

“Oh dear.”

“Leaving Vietnam. The boat journey. That’s what I want to write about.”

“Ask your mother.”

“I did, but she was too young when it happened. She only remembers the refugee camp and arriving in Houston.”

“Ask your father then.”

“He came over on a plane in the eighties, and that’s not half as exciting. That’ll get me a B if I’m lucky. But your boat person story? Jackpot. Communists! Thai pirates! Starvation! That’s an A-­plus story.”

“Oh, is that what it is?”

“Mom said you don’t like talking about the war, but I should know about my past, shouldn’t I? That’s what this school project is about—­learning your history, exploring your culture, discovering where you came from, that kind of thing.”

“You really want to know the country you came from?”

“Yes.”

“And you want a story about me on a boat?”

“Yes!”

“Fine. I will tell you a boat story. It begins on a stormy day at sea.”

“Wait, wait! Let me get my pencil . . . Okay, go!”

“The waves were vicious, the wind was an animal, and the sky was dung-­colored.”

“Hang on a second. Where were you?”

“On the boat, of course.”

“Well yeah, but is this 1975? We are talking about 1975, right?”

“Child, when you’re my age you don’t bother remembering years.”

“But this is at the very end of the war?”

“Did that war ever really end, con?”

“Look, Grandma, I just need to get the dates straight! How old were you then?”

“Around the same age as you; I married young. Perhaps a couple years older.”

“I think you’re getting confused. If Mom was seven when she left, you had to have been way older than sixteen.”

Excerpted from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.