“Housewarming,” by PS Zhang

Apr 20th, 2023 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

My sister Mindy recently hosted the type of party where acquaintances posing as friends compliment you while simultaneously judging your life decisions and aesthetics. The dialogue is predictably catty. “It’s so ambitious to take on a fixer. You must not be too busy at work.” “I love these floor-to-ceiling windows. What a view! Must be a nightmare to clean.”

At last, Mindy found the right home for her fiancé Wendell, herself, and her dog Birdie, a spirited English Setter with one black eye and a predisposition to slobber from excitement and exhaustion. My sister lives in San Francisco where finding a place to live is a high stakes digital shootout among white and Asian people. Whoever has the most money and the best LinkedIn profile wins. People there love diversity but not enough to actually nurture it within the temperate marine layer geography.

She and Wendell were looking for a dog-friendly one to two-bedroom abode with parking. They found a detached 1910’s yellow bungalow in Bernal Heights. The house is unremarkable in its interior and exterior but is valued at almost 1.5 million dollars. It’s a one bedroom, one bathroom with an open finished attic space which they use as a guest space, lounge, and gaming center. Parking is something they’re always discussing. They have a one car garage that is slightly too small for Mindy’s Prius. For Wendell’s Audi convertible, it didn’t go well. New to the street and blocked in, Wendell called the cops to have the offender towed. Later he realized it was his neighbor’s car. Now Mindy and Wendell both park on the street and like much of America, use the garage as storage. In case you’re wondering, Wendell is not white though that probably seems a very white thing to do.

The best feature of the home is that it is spacious (1200 square feet) with hardwoods throughout. It is a standalone structure and has a private fenced in backyard with grill, built-in outdoor furniture, and fire pit. Not to mention the house faces onto Bernal Heights Park, a place they visit with Birdie on a nightly basis. Some of the best views and most pampered pooches of San Francisco can be seen from that vantage point. Most of the time Birdie goes in the park. My sister scoops the dog’s business with a California approved biodegradable bag and then drops the satchel off at the park’s entrance before heading home. But sometimes, a dog’s gotta go when a dog’s got to go. In those cases, Birdie goes in the backyard.

She likes to make her transactions in the tall lily and hay grasses. Her setter nose and legs stalk around the backyard, flushing the vegetation, on the scent for the best place to squeeze out brown and mustard yellow logs. Occasionally, Birdie likes to go in the raised fire pit. The first time she did this, I was awestruck. What a strange and entrancing sight to see a dog bred to wander several miles in drizzly Anglo-Saxon heaths and marshes, hunch herself over like a speckled pinto bean, treating a modern granite gas fire pit as her porcelain throne.


My pug Beans spun around in front of the backdoor, whimpering to be let out. I thought again of my sister’s housewarming and the call she gave me afterwards, how she had prepared the home from top to bottom, made plans regarding the chores, the guests, the food, and on and on. The chore that escaped her was to clean the backyard. And when she remembered, she shrugged it off.

Mindy hadn’t wanted to ask Wendell for help. Although Wendell liked Birdie, he wasn’t raised with dogs. Asking her fiancé, whom she’s just begun living with, to pick up bags of old dog shit wasn’t really the most romantic gesture a young woman in love would bestow onto her life partner. Besides, she had consoled herself, Birdie’s presents weren’t anywhere a person would step and probably no one would notice anyway.

“Callie almost ate some of Birdie’s poop at the housewarming,” Mindy had casually recounted over FaceTime as she unloaded the groceries from her canvas tote bags.

“What do you mean a child almost ate—”

“Well we gave her an ice cream cone and she kept, kind of, dropping it, you know,” my sister tilted her palm over and looked surprised by the imaginary ice cream splattered on her floor. “She’s little; she was a bit distracted. I mean, Beck, kids are nuts. Some of them tried to tear down all the cheese and crackers from the dining table. One of the parents gave his son some cambozola, and the kid went manic.”

“Uh-huh,” I dutifully commented. I don’t really like kids but everyone’s having them these days.

Mindy’s hands groped through the air at more imagined oddly shaped items. “The little boy was so powerful, like physically, he tasted the cheese and went fucking berserk. Like Hulk, you know. Rawr! He got all panicky; it was gross.” I imagined my sister witnessing such hedonism in tiny individuals, eyes ravenous, mouths agape, and arms grabbing at her.

“And this was Callie?” I picked up Beans and held him in my arms. The excitement people feel for babies is what I feel for this scrunched-faced-destroyer-of-slippers. Beans pawed at my arm and I fed him a piece of chicken off my plate as if on command.

“No, no, Callie had the ice cream cone. Well first she laid her cone down on the patio stairs and I asked her dad, David, ‘hey should I give her another ice cream?’ I was thinking to myself, these people know I have a dog…and we’re in my backyard. But David said no, it was fine. Kids will end up eating lots of dirt. There’s no way to prevent it. Honestly, I was kind of shocked, but you know, men.” She looked in the direction of a pile of Wendell’s dirty soccer gear in the background.

“Yeah,” I wasn’t in the mood to remind her I am also a man and I had never let children under my supervision eat dirt let alone excrement. “It’s hard to see a mother being okay with that but what does that have to do with eating dog presents?”

“Oh yeah-yeah. Callie dropped her cone again, except this time the ice cream touched some of Birdie’s poop.” Mindy’s head disappeared as she rummaged for something in the kitchen cabinets.

“Huh?” I shouted, temporarily forgetting she’d hear me at the same volume on her laptop regardless of how I said it.

Her head popped back into the frame, “So, Callie was really interested in the fire pit and playing in the gravel and she put her cone down again and it might have touched some of Birdie’s poop.”

“Mindy, why would that have happened? Didn’t you clean up before people came over?” My sister started chopping a salad while looking past her screen and pulled a cookbook into view.

“Yes of course, like all of the inside but I forgot about the backyard. I don’t go out there much, it’s really for Birdie.” The knife glinted as it caught the kitchen’s recessed lighting. She used it like a telescoping pointer flicking it to her garden’s door. “Plus, I had a lot of stuff going on and making food for thirty people. And besides, how was I supposed to know that a child would want to play in a fire pit? How is a person supposed to know that?”

Her knife chopped hard against a green pepper then a red onion. I felt us sliding back to childish ways. It’s strange, though she’s the elder (and most responsible) and a successful chemist, a profession which demands literal microscopic attention to detail, outside the lab she’s a free-spirited loose and breezy type. I, on the other hand, am the baby and though I could have gotten away with a lot more, I love procedure and straight edges. It didn’t surprise anyone when I became a rigid corporate lawyer whose greatest daily attribute is spotting and correcting inconsistencies.

“Anyways,” Mindy plopped the vegetables into a steel bowel, “just when Callie was about to lick the ice cream with poop sprinkles, David sprang into action from seemingly nowhere and grabbed the cone from her mouth.”

“Wow, talk about fatherly spidey senses.”

“Yeah I didn’t even notice any of this happening until David reacted. Men.” She winked and gave me a knowing smile.

I acknowledged her apology with a grin then moved on to more logistical matters, “Next time, I guess clean up the firepit. I still can’t believe you had people at your house and the stuff was in plain sight.”

“Dude, is that seriously all you took from this conversation?”


Rain pelts down on my London flat. In the kitchen, the wet streams sideways on the garden’s glass and iron back door. I look up at the cream ceiling, the color indicated as “Magnolia Beige” on the rental agreement, and wince about my neighbor on the fourth floor of this Victorian townhouse.

Pop, pop, pop on my window and a finger pointed at my low nose, black hair, and creased eyes, somehow missing the six-foot-four-inch brunet beside me. “4th Floor” had found something unpleasant in the garden—a lot of it—and as if that wasn’t offensive enough, the blasted stuff was on the doorstep. He had almost stepped in it.

My husband Charlie had lost the coin flip during our first month in the flat (ironically calling tails) and earned the official designation of Scooper. This was his steamy pile to clean up. Of course, 4th Floor couldn’t have known this, but my question remains, why with Charlie and I before him, ready to be barbequed, did he have only one skewer? I guess I was the one seemingly small and docile enough to fit on the fire pitch. That must have been it.

We had been told no one uses the garden and when we moved in, it was in a completely abandoned state. There was no evidence anyone took an interest or responsibility for the space. The garden had two entrances and the door for the upstairs’ flats was covered in cobwebs. Our first weekend together, Charlie and I cleaned the grounds, organized and tamed it, removed several giant garden bags of yard waste, and though Beans used the garden every day, we never saw a single neighbor.

Selfishly, we hadn’t given our sporadic cleanings any thought until the day 4th Floor confronted me. I got a good dressing down—much more than a tut—and accordingly established a consistent schedule to rid the garden of Beans’ beans.

Even with this, Charlie would often miss several. Once, I noticed 4th floor had hung some clothes low to the ground and one of them if scooted a centimeter would have touched a calcified log. I stealthily removed the evidence, did a scan for any others in the yard, and unfortunately found several more.

Although I knew the solution—watch Beans during every bathroom break and do the pick up immediately after, or walk Beans and don’t let her go in the garden—I could never bring myself to do either even though I was accustomed to both practices while living in Chicago and New York City. Something about London’s constant rain, the convenience of the garden, my own inconsiderate behavior and laziness, and that 4th floor very seldomly appeared—only during the summer when it was sunny and only for the purpose of drying laundry. If you live in London, you know sunny summer days are few and far between and to combine that with weekend laundry day, well maybe my sloth could be explained if not excused.


Today is a rare one for London. The sun is out on this town without a cloud as his plus one, the air is warm enough for printed shorts, and my friend Carey is visiting. The garden door is open. “I’m going to let Beans out,” she says. My yard is spotless; I am confident.

“Take my garden clogs,” I holler from the living room. When I don’t hear her coming, I make my way through the kitchen. Carey is already outside, standing barefoot. In fact, she is in one of the more popular areas that Beans likes to pee in.

My cheeks burn with shame, and I apologize urgently, losing my sense and stating the obvious, “You know Beans goes to the bathroom out here right? I have some shoes. You should put on some shoes.”

She laughs and says it’s fine, “I have dogs too and I know, I told you I’m letting her out.”

I back myself into the flat, hands almost up as if in tenuous surrender. What am I responsible for here? I scan the kitchen’s wooden floor and feverishly cannot stop blinking. Surely something wrong has happened and it is my fault. Through the door, Carey saunters across the concrete, avoiding the damp but otherwise exploring and enjoying the garden.

After Carey leaves, I FaceTime Mindy and ruminate about soapy toes and un-savored brown sprinkles. “If you had picked up after Birdie, would it still count? What if some other kids visit and you make s’mores and one of them accidentally drops his marshmallow stick onto the flaming gravel, but everyone says five second rule, what do you do? Do you let the kid eat the marshmallow even though you know where it’s been?”

“Yeah, I get where you’re going with this,” the knife flicks back into view. This time she slices up potatoes for gratin.

“Isn’t something left behind, even in fire? Something always is.” I look past my screen and onto the garden in full bloom. The creeping jasmine is out, like tiny white stars have gotten stuck in a deep green sky. The camellia tree bends deep with pink flowers, and the lavender has won its claim over the herbs. It couldn’t be more perfect.

“Your obsession with purity has to stop. Poop dust on fire, it’s just dirt at that point.”


She stares at me not moving although the connection is fine.

I stare back.

“I wouldn’t tell that kid Birdie shit in the fire pit,” she admits with a sly smirk.

“Me either,” I agree, feeling terrible but honest.

“What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” Mindy jokes. She cackles as she forces a block of cheese against the box grater. I cough out a laugh too, knowing we’d say nothing, only look at each other and raise an eyebrow.


PS Zhang was born and raised in the American South. Her work can be read in Southern Humanities Review and Zone 3, where she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Further work is forthcoming in New South, where she placed second in their 2021 Prose Contest, [PANK], Washington Square Review, and Pleiades. She is an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Summer Program and a finalist in One Story’s Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship.

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