First, last, and foremost, Ling Tan thought of herself as a Christian. So when Mrs. Sheriday said, "Tell me a little something about yourself," Ling didn't even draw breath before responding, "I am good Christian." And so saying, she sat up even straighter in her chair, like a star pupil providing the correct answer to a teacher.
But the employment counselor didn't smile. She didn't even look up. She went on regarding the papers on her desk and said, "Well, yes, I'm sure that you are. But what I meant was, tell me more about your work experience. I see that you were enrolled in a practical-nursing program at Long Beach Memorial Hospital but you didn't complete the course of study."
Ling ducked her head.
"Why was that?"
Ling said nothing.
"Why, exactly, did you drop out?"
Ling smiled and shrugged.
The other woman waited.
The silence got too big for Ling. Twisting her hands, she said, "Had late classes. Afraid to ride bus home at night."
"I see." Mrs. Sheriday looked back down at the papers. "Next time try taking morning classes, because you need more credits." She pointed her pen at Ling's thin résumé. "Your references are very good; I can see you're good with patients. But our doctors and care managers like to see more academic training. You still have time to register for some classes at Long Beach Community College."
"Even if you were just enrolled, I could list them."
"Next semester I enroll," Ling said, and smiled. Americans liked smiling, and Californians smiled all the time, so Ling made it a habit to smile constantly. She smiled when she was alone; she might even have smiled in her sleep.
As Ling got up to leave, Mrs. Sheriday said, "Check with me midweek—I might have something then. I see you've worked with children. I have a pediatric oncologist who is looking for somebody to live in and provide custodial care for a patient who is terminal. You wouldn't have any expenses, and you could save your wages for next school term."
Ling nodded, and in acknowledgment of the seriousness of this new topic, the mortal illness of a child, attempted to stop smiling. But this was not quite possible.
Back in her furnished room, two hours later, Ling drank three glasses of water. She drank the first one because she was thirsty from sitting on the bus-stop bench in the hot sun for an hour; she drank the second and third to trick her stomach into thinking she had fed it breakfast and lunch. She sat in a chair she had placed at the uncurtained window of her second-story room. It was spring, and in a yard beyond a shabby garage two plum trees—unpruned for a generation—were struggling into bloom. Ling let her eyes rest on the white blossoms and took the time to thank God for the beauty he had created in every moment and in every place. Even now, even here. Wherever she looked she could see evidence of his goodness. And the flowering plums were beautiful—if Ling looked only at their canopies, if her eye didn't follow the scaling trunks down to the array of old paint cans and junk lumber nestled in the weeds beneath.
Ling took a deep breath and thanked God for his unceasing goodness to her—air in abundance, strong lungs to take it in, the flowering plums, even the water in her plastic glass. Ling sat in her chair and watched the plum trees until dusk fell and the blossoms melted into the darkness. Then, having no food and no money to buy it, she went to bed. In her neighborhood children played late; car alarms went on and off, seemingly at random; police cars and ambulances wailed on their way to St. Mary's Hospital, a block away. Even after she'd pulled the shades down, the orange streetlights cast a hellish glow on the ceiling. Ling shut her eyes and prayed. She was deep in a prayer of thanksgiving for her many blessings when she fell asleep.
Ling called Mrs. Sheriday on Wednesday from a pay phone on the corner of her street. "Ling, I'm glad you called. I got a call from the doctor about that boy. I made a tentative appointment for you to go out and meet his mother, Mrs. Tipton. The parents are divorced."
Ling smiled furiously into the phone.
Martha Tipton, the sick boy's mother, opened the door to Ling Tan. While still in the vestibule, Mrs. Tipton said, "Oh, dear, you don't look very strong—you're shorter than Mike."
"Oh, very strong," Ling said. "Not big, not tall, but very strong. Used to working with children."
"Mike's sixteen. He doesn't weigh what he should, of course, but he's tall for his age."
Ling smiled. "Very strong," she repeated.
Mrs. Tipton led the way into the living room. "Well, if you say so. Mrs. Sheriday said you'd be bringing references. May I see them?"
Ling opened her purse and proffered the letters, and Mrs. Tipton sat down on the edge of the sofa to read them. Ling remained standing. The living room was sparsely furnished—a sofa, a piano, a bare coffee table. All of Mrs. Tipton's domestic efforts appeared to have gone into her yard and her plants. From the sidewalk Ling had already noticed, with approval, Mrs. Tipton's well-kept garden. Now Ling's eyes went to a row of African violets on a low windowsill—pink ones, white ones, purple ones—all blooming! Mrs. Tipton was a good steward.
"These are remarkable," Mrs. Tipton said, handing the letters back to Ling. "Let's go back to Mike's room and see if he's awake." When they got there, Mrs. Tipton stuck her head inside. "He's sleeping," she whispered, closing the door quietly.
"Will I sleep close by, so can hear boy if he call?" Ling asked.
Mrs. Tipton nodded and opened the next door—into a small room containing a bureau, a sewing machine, an ironing board, and a single bed. "I've cleared out the bureau for your things," she said.
The room had French doors. Outside, healthy ferns and fuchsias cascaded from hanging baskets, and nasturtiums bordered the brick walk. God's goodness, as well as Mrs. Tipton's fine stewardship, was much in evidence.
Ling transported her belongings—a green leatherette suitcase and a canvas satchel holding her Bible and her Bible-study books—on the bus later that afternoon. When she arrived, at six, Mike was asleep again, and Mrs. Tipton was preparing to leave for an appointment with her tax man.
"Mike's had his dinner," she said. "He usually eats at five-thirty. Just go in and introduce yourself when he wakes up. And when you do, give him the pills in this paper cup. I've told him about you, and he's expecting to meet you. If you should need me, the number is on the refrigerator, beside Doctor Mackenzie's."
After Mrs. Tipton had gone, Ling checked on Mike. She stood in the doorway to his room and studied her new charge for a long time. He was blond, pale, and tall, as his mother had said—or, more accurate in the circumstances, long. His bare arms were covered with a light blond down. Ling—who had been orphaned at eight and had survived typhus and thirty-two days in an open boat—could not accept the inevitability of the sleeping boy's death. Inevitability was a concept that ran contrary to her experience. That afternoon, while discussing Mike's illness with Mrs. Tipton, Ling had said that she would pray for a miracle for Mike. Mrs. Tipton's brow had furrowed, and she'd said that it was a little late in the day for that. Ling had quickly dropped the subject, but she could not drop the hope. To Ling, who regarded her own life as an unfolding miracle, miracles were a commonplace.