Skip to content


Walking tour: start at the end of the Santa Cruz pier. Peruse live crab dozing and lobsters straitjacketed in bubbling tanks; slabs of salmon, cod, and rockfish; steaks of halibut and shark; piles of clams, oysters, squid, and shrimp. Taste test smoked salmon; get a cup of shrimp cocktail. Above the fish market is Stagnaro’s restaurant and bar.

From the pier, look back toward the shore and see the Boardwalk Amusement Park, Giant Dipper roller coaster, and the length of Venetian-style buildings that house a dance hall and game galleries. It’s a preserved throwback to a vintage time before Disneyland. Walk down the pier, noting the curio shops, Marini’s candy shop, Italian and Mexican restaurants, whale watching, and kayak rentals.

At the beginning of the pier, find the Ideal Bar and Grill and walk around and into the Boardwalk. Lose yourself in the park. Buy a T-shirt that says san-ta cu-ru-zu in Japanese. Munch on cotton candy. Have a corn dog slathered in catsup and mustard. Drink Corona beer. Ride the merry-go-round. Look for the Lost Boys, coifed long hair or punk-spiked blonde, looking nastily pretty on motorcycles. Wander into fun houses. Look for underground passages and two identical little Black girls, one in a Hands Across America T-shirt and the other in a Thriller T-shirt, both licking giant lollipops.

Walk back toward the pier to the roundabout and turn right on Pacific Avenue. Stay right onto Front Street. Cross Second Street and continue up the hill to Third. At the corner of Front and Third, notice an elegant Victorian house painted in pink and white and the sign, Sunshine Villa, originally the site of Hotel McCray, but also the site chosen by Alfred Hitchcock for the Bates Motel.

From the villa hill, look north into the Santa Cruz hills toward the UCSC campus, and search for the head and supplicating hands of an enormous unblinking doll with a ponytail, in a striped blue and white sundress, peeking over the redwoods.

My grandma Lily Chan, in her day, was a hotshot computer programmer, one of the few women in the business. She said the rest were geeky guys who basically lived in caves filled with trash—stacks of greasy pizza boxes, Chinese takeout, empty cans of Mountain Dew, Cheetos, Cup Noodles. Disgusting. They ignored her Chinese face, flat chest, and skinny butt, even jerked off right there in the next cubicle—until she solved some code; then they hated her guts. She called them the Lost Boys. Losers. Wet dreamers humping Hello Kitty. Fake avatars suited up like wormy dicks slithering around the Matrix. She took no guff. Her work area was pristine, antiseptic. She ate her lunch with silver chopsticks. She drew a line and raised her chopsticks. You cross that line; I put your eyes out. Lily was one cool bitch. Within earshot, they called her “Tiger Lily”; beyond earshot, I can only imagine.

Old Asians don’t shrivel; they blossom into golden Buddhas.

Years later, Lily was a young ninety, and we were at Stagnaro’s at the end of the pier, dipping fish and chips into tartar sauce. She leaned over the table, sipping her mai tai, and pointed the end of a pink paper umbrella at me. “You break me out tonight. We drive off this pier and never come back. I feel like visiting Napa. Check into a winery for a change. I make it up to you. When did you ever hang out in Napa?”


“Don’t Grandma me. This is your daddy’s fault.”

“He’s remodeling your bathroom. New tile. Top-of-the-line fixtures. Ask him for a Jacuzzi.”

My dad had checked Lily into an eldercare home for a few months to wait out the mess of construction. She hated it.

“Try to trick me.”

“It’s for real. I saw the plans. Chrome handlebars. A Toto toilet!”

“What I need a bidet for? What sex I get these days?”

I want a Toto toilet.”

“You having good sex lately?”

“Hey, just for the pooping part. Don’t you poop?”

People at the table across glanced sideways at us. Not dinner talk. Lily couldn’t care less. She continued her rant, “You move into that sunshine prison, and I move to your place.”

“Sunshine Villa,” I corrected her. “California sunshine.”

“You got to be kidding. Gloom. Fog. Shadow. Darkness. End of life. Death. The place is an approaching eclipse.”

“Good grief, Grandma.”

“You know what’s inside there? Bunch of old white people drying on the vine. Shriveled raisins. What I got to do with those wrinkled old farts? Gives me the creeps.”

It was true. Old Asians don’t shrivel; they blossom into golden Buddhas. At least my dad could have placed her somewhere with other Asians, not to mention Chinese food. But he figured since I lived and worked up at the university, I could drive down and visit her every day, keep her company on the weekends. Basically, it was like a hotel, plus they chased her down for her meds, assisted with her bath, washed her clothing, fed her nutritious meals. The unspeakable words rolled around in the back of my brain: assisted living.

I drove her back up the hill to the villa. “Look, Grandma, I’ve got classes. I can’t just pick up and leave work. It’s only been a week. Can’t you give it a chance?”

We were at a standoff staring through the glass doors, the saccharine smile of the night receptionist with her manicured hand hovering over the automatic door opener. Lily smirked. “You remember that nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? That’s her.”

A voice behind us stated, “Nurse Ratched.”

Another voice asked, “Is she bothering you?”

A third said, “We can kill her for you, if you like.”

They all laughed. In the glass reflection, I could see a woman in a wheelchair, pushed by a man, sandwiched between two other women. The women were all what Lily called “villa inmates,” aging old crows. And to complete the tableau, there was a gigantic old panting, drooling dog.

I turned, and the man exclaimed, “Amaya Chan!”

“Oh,” I said, “J. Michael?”

Lily glared. “You know him?”

“Grandma, this is J. Michael Darling. He teaches poetry.”

“Wendy Mother,” he said to one of the women. “We just hired Amaya to teach fiction.”

So that was how Lily met her crew at the Villa. There was nonbinary Norma Bates in the wheelchair; J. Michael’s mother Wendy, professor emerita of cultural studies with her companion species, a Newfoundland named Nana; and Adelaide Wilson, African American choreographer.

Norma said, “We’ve just returned from a funeral.”

Wendy said, “My partner Petra died.” She pointed at a box in Norma’s lap. “That’s Petra.”

I said, “I’m so sorry.”

Adelaide said, “When you get to be our age, all your friends die.”

Wendy patted the box and said, “Petra and I need a drink.” She smiled at Lily. “Will you join us?”

I watched Lily march over the threshold, never turning to look back. J. Michael smiled.

“Don’t worry. They’ll take care of her.”

“You don’t know my grandma. No one takes care of her.”

J. Michael and I returned to Stagnaro’s and sat in the bar gazing over the dark bay, neon of the Giant Dipper on the Boardwalk undulating over waves. I decided to try the mai tai; it was syrupy and kinda awful, but the rum did the work, while J. Michael explained his life. He was the son of four parents, two gay fathers, and two lesbian mothers. If I wanted the details, I could read his new memoir.

“You know, being the only son of four parents, I was really spoiled.” He teared up, then laughed. “If I didn’t get what I wanted, I could try three more times.”

His fathers had both died a decade ago, and now Petra. He hadn’t prepared himself to be left behind. Wendy was his biological mother, and she was the last. She and Petra moved into the villa about five years ago. They made friends with Norma and Adelaide. Norma periodically slipped into schizoid dementia, at which times she’d become Norman. For some reason, the women disliked Norman and usually taunted Norma back.


“Yeah, slap them around so to speak. Don’t ask me.” J. Michael nursed a bourbon over rocks. “It seems to work.”

“What about the old Black lady?”

“Adelaide? She integrated the villa, but she’s still the only one. I bet she hates the place more than your grandma. She’s got issues. Your grandma seems badass. She’ll fit right in.”

We toasted. “L’chaim!”

After that, Lily became occupied with her new life at the villa and didn’t talk again about escaping. I had to dig up her old mahjong set; apparently, she was busy recreating her version of the Joy Luck Club. For sure, this was an alternative motherhood. Take Norma, who occasionally slipped into the personality of her son Norman. Then, there was Wendy’s gay/lesbian family and the spoiled J. Michael. As for Adelaide, who didn’t mind being called the “Black widow,” here was someone who never withheld the dark side of her perceptions. Lily explained, “Some people wait to get old to say what’s on their mind,” then shrugged, “Why wait?” Truth is, my dad was not really Lily’s son; down the line, he was one of the programmer Lost Boys who happened also to be Chinese. He’d gotten a scholarship to study in America, effectively defected, and Lily adopted him. I never knew my mom, who died just after I was born. It was Lily who brought me up, if what happened to me was what you call bringing up a kid.

One day, Lily sent me home with a big box. “What’s this?”

“Gifts from Norma.”

Inside was a stuffed rabbit and a stuffed rat, each mounted on polished boards. “Eww!” I jumped.

“Norma made them. Used to work for the natural history museum. She’s got them all over her apartment.” Lily shook her head and did the circular thing with her finger near her ear. “Talks to them.”


“Yeah, take them away. Bad luck.”

I stared at their shiny glass eyes. “Why?”

“I told her you were year of the rabbit.”

“And you’re the year of the rat?”

Lily nodded. “Cultural exchange.”

“What if I were the year of the tiger?”

“Actually, you are tiger year. Just be grateful.”

This should have been a sign, but when we thought about it later, we were both in denial.

One night after finals, J. Michael announced that he was inviting everyone over to his place for dinner. Everyone meant the neo–Joy Luck Club, plus Adelaide’s son Jason, who happened to be visiting, and me.

We got there early because Lily insisted on cooking. That meant that she was executive chef, and J. Michael and I did all the work. We had a long list of groceries, a couple of days of prep, driving back and forth to San Jose for condiments, steamer, wok, chopping block, cleaver. In the end, we achieved a Chinese banquet. J. Michael was ecstatic. I was exhausted. But Lily was pissed off. The ladies picked at their food, eating only the rice. Only Jason scarfed up everything like he hadn’t eaten for months. “Damn, this is delicious!”

“Lily honey, is there garlic in this dish?”

“Garlic in everything.”

“Oh my.”

J. Michael asked, “What’s the matter with garlic?”

“It seems we’re all allergic. It’s what connects us, we guess.”

“When did this happen?”

“Something we discovered recently.”

“It was that nutritionist. What’s his name, Adelaide?”

“Vlad.” Adelaide sneered.

Wendy glanced over at Nana, her bearlike form napping, copious drool damp in a towel pillow. “No scraps for Nana. She’s allergic too.”


Norma piped in, “Where’s Petra? Petra can eat garlic.”

“Norma dear, Petra died.”

Norma seemed to think about this, then spoke in a masculine voice, “No problem, Mother, I’ll eat that for you. Lily’s gone to a lot of trouble to make an authentic Chinese meal.”

But before Norman could partake, Wendy grabbed his chopsticks, and Adelaide slapped him repeatedly across the cheeks. “Norma! Come back, Norma. That’s an order.”

I looked at Jason and J. Michael, but they were happily eating and drinking. J. Michael asked Jason, “How’s that documentary of yours coming along?”

Between bites, Jason said, “Looking for funding. Have you seen my crowdsourcing page?”

“Now remind me. What’s it about?”

“It’s based on the little-known history in the 1860s about an ex-slave, London Nelson—”

Adelaide said, “You need to stop making those tedious PBS shows. Nobody cares about reality these days. What people want is this.” She slapped a three-ring binder on the table and pushed aside Jason’s plate. “Here’s the script. I finished it. I told you I would.”

Norma, who’d returned to being Norma, said, “I’ve read it. It’s sensational. Bound to be a blockbuster.”

I leaned over to see the title. “Dopplegängsters.”

Jason patted his mouth with a napkin. “Okay, Mom.” He looked at J. Michael for support, but Wendy had left the table to retrieve her own manuscript. Wendy placed it between her son’s nose and his approaching chopsticks.

“And here’s mine. This time, it’s a novella, short and sweet. You can publish under your name or an alias. I don’t care. This”—she tapped the ream of paper—“will make you money. You can start a series.”

Norma said, “It will go viral.”

J. Michael asked, “What’s it about this time?”

“Vampires, of course.”

“What happened to feminist Marxism? The contradiction of neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism?”

“Have you ever read Anne Rice?” asked Norma. “That woman makes a ton of capital. Ask Petra.”

“Norma, Petra is dead.”

“The critique of capitalism is embedded in this narrative.” Wendy waved her hands around like she was molding the air with her argument. “There is no reason why the fictive narrative cannot express critical theory.”

Adelaide growled, “Cut the bullshit. We’ve done all the work. Just find an agent and insist on six figures.”

Jason sighed heavily, then looked at Lily, who was eating stonily. “Lily, do you like music? Hey, Mikey, how about some music?”

After that, everything went pretty fast. Well, fast for old ladies.

J. Michael jumped up, and Jason followed me into the kitchen with dirty plates. “Amaya, sorry about our mothers, but you know, dementia. They get crazier and crazier as the years pass. Thing is, those women are why J. Michael is an experimental word poet with about a hundred readers and I’m an impoverished documentary filmmaker. Then suddenly in the last few years, they’re obsessed with our making money, literally getting fame and fortune. Anyway, let your grandma know her dinner was amazing.” He thumbed the pages of Adelaide’s script. “Every time I visit, she has another script for me.” He tossed it into the recycle.

We left the kitchen to find the mood changed in the living room. J. Michael was deejaying Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Adelaide moonwalked across the floor, but more bizarrely, so did Wendy and Lily. Norma’s body, from within her wheelchair, had achieved the agility of a worm. Even Nana could have been pressing her furry paws into the moon. Okay, Adelaide could moonwalk; she was a dancer, but the others? Their combined ages were about three-and-a-half centuries. It was a surreal form of butoh. For a moment, I felt folded into their metamorphosis, saw faces go ashen, eyes go bloody. But then everyone was laughing. So we all danced together into the night, and I thought Lily had forgotten the oriental garlic fiasco.

Over the next months, I got busy teaching summer school and working on my graphic novel. I assumed Lily got up at the crack of dawn to do tai chi in the villa courtyard, simultaneously with an imagined one billion Chinese. And at night, she played mahjong with the neo–Joy Luck Clubbers, whom Lily began to refer to as the night bats. “Sleep all day. Drink all night.” She scoffed at their bad habits.

I’d go over faithfully for my daily visit, take Lily for walks along West Cliff or Natural Bridges. She was never leisurely but walked at a quick pace, with purpose. “What’s the hurry?”

“What’s a matter with you?” she jeered. “You getting flabby.” She made a fist. “See this? Muscle tone.”

“You training for something?”

“Old age.” Then she busted out in some kung fu kicks.


We stopped to look at the surfer statue, bloody rose petals kissing his bronze toes.

“You bring what I asked for?”

I had to make a special trip up to her old apartment. She’d been very specific. Other than the crochet hooks and yarn, the rest of it was her entire collection of silverware, carving knives and forks, goblets, her infamous silver chopsticks, letter opener, fine jewelry, chains. All of it together weighed a ton. I had to get a dolly to wheel out the boxes.

“What do you need all that stuff for? Don’t you want to know how the remodel is coming along?”

Grandma pivoted away from the surfer and crossed the street. “One more thing.” She headed across the lawn toward the Catholic church. I followed her in. She pointed at the altar. “That.”

“The painting?”

“No, that Jesus thing.”


“Get me one of those. You got a Costco card?”

“Grandma, they don’t sell that at Costco.”

“Not that. You get me garlic, three-pound bags, colossal.”

So by now, you’d think I should have figured it out. But living with Lily was one of those apprenticeships where I had to interpret koans on a need-to-know basis. If I had to ask, what kind of dummy was I? As it turned out, she had retrieved Adelaide’s script and Wendy’s novella from the trash. She pushed them on me. “This is your homework. You gotta pass the test.” I felt sorry for Jason and J. Michael. As a teacher, bad writing from students was a given, but from your mother? Still, I wouldn’t have had a problem inviting the old bats to my fiction workshops. They were mimicking the horror genres, but they showed potential. That’s what I told Grandma.

“You some kind of dummy?” she exploded. She was furiously crocheting these necklace things with curly flowers and little leaf pouches at intervals. In the pouches, she inserted cloves of garlic. “Put this on. Don’t take it off.” Then she said, conspiratorially, “Tonight you take me to a nice dinner. You wear only black.”

“Like black tie?”

“No, like black hoodie.”

That night, we shared medium-rare steaks and fries at the Ideal Bar and Grill, then headed with the crowds into the Boardwalk. Lily pulled a black beanie over her white head and moved through the amusement park like a ninja tracker who knew the terrain intimately. We waited in the shadows, and then they appeared, escapees from assisted living: Wendy pushing Norma, and Adelaide with Nana on a leash. They disappeared into the pirate ship. Lily motioned to follow. Some blonde guy dressed as Captain Hook came forward and said in accented English, “Madame, dogs are not allowed.”

“But she is a service dog. Can’t you see? My friend is blind.” Sure enough, there was Adelaide in dark glasses smiling like Stevie Wonder.

After that, everything went pretty fast. Well, fast for old ladies. Norma pulled out a butcher knife and stabbed the kid in the stomach. Too bad the hook on his hand was only plastic. He fell over Norma, and Wendy and Adelaide struggled to wheel Norma out, clutching Captain Hook beneath her blanket. Bumping over the cold sand, they hid under the pier. After the deed was done, their voices wafted in the fog. “Was he East German?”

“Romanian, definitely Romanian. That’s how they taste.”

“They all taste like beer.”

“You’d think they’d give these jobs to Americans.”

“What American kid wants this summer job?”

“Underprivileged minority youth from the inner city?” Adelaide snarled. I thought about this. This was her script idea.

“They advertise it to Eastern European students: an exotic summer in Surf City. Irresistible.”

“Anyway, good for us. America is a dangerous place. Things happen. No one will miss him.”

Back at the bar at Stagnaro’s, Lily ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc. “From now on,” she said seriously, “no red wine.”

I nodded over a gin and tonic.

“Did they kill Petra?”

“No, Petra died regular. Wine got passed around, but she didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. In the end, she just wanted to return to Neverland.”

“Are you kidding?”

“No, that’s what they say. Bad joke. Think about it. If I were your age, maybe. But, never say die to these old boobs?” Lily clutched her nonexistent breasts dramatically. “In perpetuity? No fun. Petra got lucky, and they know it.”

“Did Nana eat the Romanian too?”

“Pet abuse.”

“So they’re going to outlive their sons?”

“Except for Norma.”

“She’ll always have Norman.” We clinked glasses.

“That’s why they need their sons to make the big bucks. Leave a fortune so they can continue immortal life at the villa. You know what your dad is paying for that prison?”

I shook my head and thought about the manuscripts in recycle. “It might be easier to rob a bank.”

“I’m going to kill them.”

“Can’t we just call the police?”

“That’s not how it works. Nobody insults my cooking.”

I had to admit there is some kind of justice to die by your own writing. It wasn’t that Lily had a plan exactly; she read those mothers’ stories like programmer manuals. Proof of the mirror. Crucifix to ward off. Holy water to burn. Garlic to defend. Silver to penetrate. Stake through the heart. Sunlight to burn.

Wendy and Adelaide lived in the villa’s top-floor cushy penthouse apartments, but Norma was exiled to the Alzheimer’s unit housed in the old Victorian house attached by a bridge to the main villa. The main villa was a remodeled, dressed-up vestige of the Barbary Coast. I began to dream about aging saloon girl bats, their vengeful slave Adelaide, and Chinagirl Lily. My nightmare could have been one of Adelaide’s scripts.

After nighttime mahjong, Norma got wheeled back to the dementia house and tucked into bed. One night, Lily disabled the alarm system and snuck into Norma’s zoological apartment, winding her way around the dead animalia. “Norman,” she nudged the sleeping body. “Get up.”

Norman woke groggily and said, “What?”

“Your mother wants to talk to you.”

Norman rolled over. “Go away.”

“Norman, she says it’s important.”

“What does she want now?”

Lily got Norman up and into the wheelchair and rolled him out to the front porch.

“Where is she?”

Lily looked at her watch. “She’ll be here in a moment.” She steered Norman to face east. They gazed over the town toward the hills. It was a vision that Norman hadn’t seen in years. What was it? “There she is!” Lily exclaimed and scampered from the porch into the bushes. It was one of those rare seaside mornings, not a speck of fog.

Norman stared at the cold golden corona shivering into sunrise. His eyes filled and burst. “Mother!”

The fire on the porch at the villa caused the evacuation of the dementia unit. When all the muddled-headed patients were rolled back in, Norma was unaccounted for. She’d vanished. The police came around to investigate. “Those police are stupid,” said Lily.

“What do Wendy and Adelaide say?”

Lily imitated Adelaide’s growling undertone. “What the hell are we going to do with all her dead animals?”

“A compassionate response.” How many Romanians had they eaten? Still, I imagined the old bats had their suspicions. Lily had to move fast. But then, there was the matter of Halloween.

You could have predicted it, Wendy dressed as Dracula, and Adelaide as a Michael Jackson Thriller zombie. Nana got demon horns. Equally predictable, Lily was a Shaolin kung fu monk, and I was a hooded ninja. The difference between kung fu and ninja was pretty much lost between us, but we were there for business. Lily had melted down her silverware into weapons: swords, daggers, and nunchucks.

Parading through the tight crowd, someone yelled, “Look,” pointing at Adelaide, “he’s back from the dead!” It was true, she could have been a ninety-year-old version of the King of Pop.

We followed closely behind. Lily pulled a perfume spritzer from her backpack and nodded at me.

“What’s that?”

“Holy water. Special Chinese recipe. I bless it myself.”

She sprayed my wrist. “Ouch.”

“Tien Tsin chili, Szechuan peppercorn, garlic; one pound each, concentrate and distill.”

Adelaide, distracted by all the attention, every kind of zombie pressing against her, didn’t know when the back of her red leather jacket got graffitied with invisible holy water.

“Michael!” they yelled. “Let’s break out and do it!” We were gang-pressed into the House of Mirrors, the place throbbing with Thriller. I searched for Adelaide in the humping mass, but as Lily knew, she could not be reflected. Instead, I followed Lily’s dancing graffiti. In broken flashes, when I could connect Adelaide to the blood-splashed Chinese character, slipping and jerking among her doubles, I could see her terrified anger. She could not see herself dancing, and yet she was surrounded by poor imitations, incompetent dancers, distorted and multiple versions in Blackface. I was truly horrified.

Lily slapped me out of my trance. “You lost your mind?”

“I’m gonna kill all of these racists.” I felt resolute in my outrage and pulled out my silver dagger.

“They gonna die anyway. Stick to the plan. Follow the ghost.”


“Can’t you read?” she pointed at the looming Chinese character. I turned to find Adelaide hurtling forward, smashing me into looking glass, icicles splintering into her toothy fangs. I plunged in my dagger, pushing her backward. Then, I watched Lily, in slow-motion, slice off Adelaide’s growling head. Maybe it was my imagination, but I saw that golden head rocket through the ceiling, a burning meteor soaring into the night sky.

I had to admit there is some kind of justice to die by your own writing.

The final coup de grace was performed behind the lighthouse surfer museum on the teetering cliff edge of the dark bay. Monstrous waves thundered; night birds screeched. The moon disappeared and reappeared seductively between cloud lace and ocean spume. Wendy’s cape whipped and rippled like liquid black-and-blood satin. Panther fangs busted from her bloody mouth. She towered against the night, a great Medusa sporting a writhing wig of snakes. At her side, Nana was posted stoically, drooling from her fangs. Lily poised herself, kung fu master with her glinting sword, and I was swinging silver nunchucks like Michelangelo. If my life hadn’t been on the line, I’d have said it was a pretty cool scene.

It’s probably an exaggeration to say we fought for hours. But being two ninety-year-old ladies and one incompetent ninja wannabe, you can imagine us running around in slow-motion, stumbling, missing targets. It seemed endless. At least Adelaide could choreograph her thrilling death. We were a bunch of amateurs. Wendy had some monster tricks, but then Lily was wise to all that CGI. I imagined Michelle Yeoh at ninety. Daily tai chi and fast walking on West Cliff had paid off. My nunchucks actually knocked off one of Wendy’s fangs, ka-chunk, and Lily sliced away a bunch of snake extenders. Wendy managed to sprout bat wings and grab me by my feet; she groaned upward into tortured flight. I tried tossing the silver nunchucks, only singeing her flapping wings, but then Lily slung her dagger into the night. I ducked away and saw it swivel and churn and burn into bat flesh. We tumbled earthbound, but Wendy was not spent. She pounced forward, grabbing my neck, bore down upon me with her remaining fang. Beyond her writhing head, I saw Lily come from behind, silver chopsticks glinting, their binary curse puncturing each ear. Wendy flailed backward over the cliff, spewing blood. There at the edge was Nana, one giant inscrutable Sphinx, her ubiquitous leather leash dangling like a question mark.

I peered over into crashing sea and vertigo. Wendy dangled there, hanging onto Nana’s leash. The silver chopsticks sizzled in her brains, but Wendy still pleaded to Nana. “Pull me up,” she commanded. Nana seemed to think about this, then with ethical resolve, opened her great mouth and closed her fangs over the leash, severing her tether to her mistress. Wendy screamed, “You always liked Petra better!” I watched her body twirl downward, massive cape ballooning and cascading, chopsticks spinning their silver DNA, to the final plummet into relentless and endless sea.

Not long after, my dad arrived to move Lily out of the villa and back into her remodeled apartment. We carted boxes and bags back and forth. When it was all done, I snoozed in bubbles in her new Jacuzzi. Nearby, Nana observed me from her pillow throne. Lily came in with treats for Nana. I opened one eye. “Hey, how about me?”

True story: the story above is not based on a true story, but you already know those horror stories set in our guileless town. Truth is that my mother, a Japanese American nisei, checked into the Sunshine Villa for the same reasons; our bathroom and kitchen were being remodeled. Every day during those months, I came to visit her at the villa. I thought she’d love it; it really was a hotel in the sense they changed the sheets daily, had a restaurant and room service, a nail and hair salon, plus exercise and art classes, book clubs, movie nights, field trips, and birthday parties. She hated it. Refused to participate in healthy eldercare and sulked in her room with her books. When I arrived in the morning, she complained about not getting her copy of the New York Times. When I arrived in the evening, she’d dragged in large cardboard boxes she found in the corridor; needed, she said, to pack up her stuff. She was leaving tomorrow. When was I picking her up?

True, my mother was probably the first nisei to ever live in the villa. “Hey, you’re making history integrating this place.” She was not impressed. This was not Little Rock. She wanted out. When my sister and I checked her in, we were asked where in Japan she was born. My sister responded with outrage, “She was born in San Francisco! She’s an American!” She might also have said that Asako graduated Cal Berkeley in 1941 and taught grammar school for nineteen years. The administrators blanched, and I wondered if my mom, hard of hearing, had heard that crazy exchange. In the end, her only favorite person at the villa was the chef and cook, who, likely primed by the director, came out to greet my mom exclaiming, “We have something in common. I was born in San Francisco too!”

Eventually the remodeling was done, and my mom moved back home. Years passed and one day at age ninety-nine, Mom died. I can still see my sister coming through the door of our house, a paper bag loaded with the box carrying Mom’s ashes in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. My sister shook the paper at me angrily. “Mom would be so mad!”

I woke up from the couch where I was covered with student papers.

“Look at this!” She rattled the document at me.

I perused what turned out to be Mom’s death certificate.

“Do you see that?” She pointed.

I tried to look more carefully. Bureaucratic forms are meant to be skimmed. I sat up.

“Look! There!”

In the box designated “race” was typed: Caucasian. I busted up laughing. “I knew you’d laugh!” My sister was furious, then appeased.

We both knew the terrible truth. People come to Santa Cruz to die white.


“Neverneverland” is used by permission from Dark Soil (Coffee House Press, 2024). Copyright © 2024 by Karen Tei Yamashita.