Literary Orphans

CHAPTER 1 by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

that_strange_girl_who_by_marta-bevacqua

Author’s note: This is the “murdered” darling first chapter of my forthcoming novel (Simon & Schuster 2016). It lasted through eight years of work…then cut!

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Young-ae Kwok knew it to be still early. The air had that uniform morning stillness and carried the yeasty sweet smell of sandwich rolls baking at the Piggly Wiggly that she could see from her vantage point of 207 Summit Drive, the only hill in town.

As the steam from the Piggly Wiggly (where, she imagined, hairy armed Mr. Norvald was placing tray after tray of pale dough into the maw of the industrial oven) rose in silent puffs, the only sound she could hear was the diminished roar of a faraway truck.

To the east of “Pill Hill” (where all the doctors lived) stood the billboard on County Road 22 that greeted you to the town of Horse’s Breath. A twenty-foot-tall miner, arm extended:

 

. . . . . . . STOP!

. . . . . . . YOU are ENTERING HORSE’S BREATH, MINNESOTA
. . . . . . . Pop. 10,483
. . . . . . . Home of Don Donaldson Inventor of the “Pizza Rollup”
. . . . . . . And the Hull-Rust Mine “The Grand Canyon of the Midwest”

. . . . . . . **WORLD’S LARGEST CRAPPIE CAUGHT AT BIG DICK LAKE, 1984**

. . . . . . . Business district

 

Next to that sign, Young-ae could see the stoplight was still blinking yellow. This told her better than her watch that it was not yet seven o’clock; the lights were set to yellow every night by Mr. Griffith, the Chief of Police ever since Ole Olson, returning from dinner at his son’s house in Beauty Lake, stopped obediently at the red, not knowing that one of the not-uncommon power surges from Iron Range Electric Co. had knocked out the timer. He sat in his truck until Chief Griffith came by on a call about a disabled vehicle and found old Ole, down to an eighth of a tank, but still steadfastly waiting. He told Ole it was okay to run a red in this situation (as long as he looked both ways before proceeding), he wouldn’t give him a ticket.

Young-ae knew all this because the Police Chief Griffith’s mother-in-law was sister to Reverend Halvorsen’s mother who was a great-aunt to Mrs. Spanokovich-Kovich, the biggest blabbermouth in town. In fact, that Sunday, at church school at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, the quiet law abidingness of Ole Olson was used as an object lesson: how you act when no one’s looking as just as important as how you act when someone is (of course, in the lesson they didn’t mention Ole’s unfortunate—but still heroic in Young-ae’s mind–urination in the cab of his truck when he could hold his postprandial Schlitzes no longer).

“God watches you all the time,” Betty Jurkovich, the senior teacher, reminded the little cherubs.

“Ewww, even when I go to the bathroom?” asked little Tommy Heikkela. Young-ae was so glad she was just assistant-teaching that day (her duties: open the tin of butter cookies, distribute the Capri Suns).

Young-ae sipped her tea, pleasantly burnt. Some people liked the taste of burnt toast in the morning. She liked burnt rice. To make it, she’d shook out a handful of Uncle Ben’s onto some wax paper, smashed it with her chicken picatta mallet, boiled it down until all the water evaporated and it roasted to a smoking crust.

As she watched, the traffic light stopped blinking yellow, then reappeared as a cool, steady green. She could almost make out the two dabs of red taillight of the police cruiser driving away. Now, it was seven o’clock! Young-ae commensurately accelerated like a NASCAR driver, the rubber soles of her slippers squeaking on the floor as she raced toward the phone.

The invention of time zones, such a gift. Seven was too early to call. But in Greenwich, Connecticut, where her son Einstein lived, it was already eight.

She grabbed the phone, pondering on how the numbers on the last phone had actually worn away, the “1” fading first, until the keypad was a series of blind plastic nubs, like the ones lining the sole of her husband Yungman’s acupressure sandals.

Yungman had re-numbered the phone with a permanent marker, the kind they used to mark the site for surgery so they wouldn’t accidentally saw off the wrong leg. Young-ae couldn’t understand how her husband, who had memorized all the medical names of thousands of things could not commit the number of his own son to memory.   Her child was a part of her, and so her mind, her fingers, her body, remembered.

Just this week, a box had been delivered to their door by Federal Express. It was from Einstein, sending her and Yungman a replacement for their old pink princess phone.

This new phone was made out of a zinc-colored plastic, its base station looking like some kind of computer capable of launching the Space Shuttle. Thus, unlike the princess phone with its curly cord (having lost most of its curliness back in the 80s) this one you could carry around wherever you wanted to. The magic phone took messages and could even ask you thoughtful questions in an audible (but slightly robotic) voice: commit new number to memory? (Plus, she noted with glee, the phone came with CALLER ID, a service that had just become available in Horse’s Breath, so now they would get to surprise and mystify their friends: “Well, hello there Mavis DeRentis!” she’d crow like a clairvoyant).

What touched her further was her son’s obvious worry about them, the huge buttons–POLICE, FIRE, EMERGENCY (this last one was where Einstein’s number went)—that you could program to dial for you.

Yungman had, incredibly, responded by calling Einstein to tell him their current phone worked perfectly fine. That cumbersome, sebum-smelling phone! The one that you needed a pencil to dial if you had your nails done (not that Young-ae ever did this, but if she did). Young-ae hurriedly re-accepted the gift, but she feared that the fun had gone out of the giving for her son, just a bit.

 

“Hel-lo-o-o?” Argh, that chekk-chekk bird-woman voice of her daughter-in-law. At least she’d trained herself not to reflexively hang up when Marni answered, as apparently this CALLER ID business worked both ways.

“Good morning, Marni!”

A pause. An early morning call. Marni Sneeden Kwok had been hoping for something out of the ordinary. Like the lottery people calling to tell her she’d won the EXTREME JACKPOT on her Mega-Millions ticket (her guilty little habit when she gassed up the Lexus). Instead, her mother-in-law. Should have known.

“It’s Mar-ni. After ten years, Young-ae, you really should know that.”

“That’s what I said, ‘Marni.’”

“You said ‘Manny.’”

Young-ae knew what she said. Only, in the Korean alphabet, when the “R” and “N” were side by side, the sound became a melodious blended sound, rnnllNN. Koreans whose last name would be pronounced “know,” (See! In English you did this, too), therefore often spelled it Rno.

“Is it really so hard to say Mar-knee?”

“Mal-knee. Man-rhee.” Oh! Did she even know what she was trying to say anymore? And why did she have to be so vexed first thing in the morning? “Put Einstein on the phone.”

“He’s still at the hospital.”

“Oh. Okay. Bye!” Maybe she could catch Einstein at work. She hit the speed dial (the #2 button, FIRE), marveling, again, at how this gadget could dial faster even than her virtuoso fingers. Bleep-blap-wheet-blap-bleeeee!

She wasn’t surprised when no one answered, as Einstein was rarely sitting in his office. She pressed POLICE to dial his pager. Inputted 303 (M-O-M if you turned it on its side)#.

Young-ae wandered into the kitchen. REDIAL, 303#

She hit REDIAL again, digging her thumbnail into the springy nub for emphasis. This, her fourth, or fifth time?

REDIAL 303# REDIAL 303# REDIAL–

Finally!

“Einstein!”

“Mom—everything okay? Is Father all right?” Einstein Alfred Nobel Kwok, M.D., was conditioned to react catastrophically to pages.

Father? Excuse me, but who had changed Einstein’s diapers? Not his father. “Everything is just hunky-dory here on Pill Hill.”

“Oh, pwew. So how’s his second day of retirement going?”

“If you’re so interested in your father, why don’t you talk to him yourself?” Young-ae wanted to say this, but realized Einstein would probably dutifully reply, “Okay, put him on.” Then, as Yungman and Einstein would have their stiff conversations about bloodflow or baby weights or whatever else in that shared doctor language, she would just be left standing there, reddening like some stove-ember that burns itself up out of spite.

“You know your father. It’s hard for him not being a doctor anymore. I’m going to try to get him to come out grocery shopping with me later.”

“Sounds good. You know, I’m prepping for surgery, a c-section, so I’d better go.”

Young-ae had this urge, that she needed to test out his love. “I do need to talk to you about something.” She wracked her brain to think about what. She stared at the coupons held to the refrigerator by a plastic magnet that looked convincingly like a piece of toro sushi.

“I’d really better go.” He actually should have already been in pre-op by now.

“I need to talk to you,” she told her son. “About the move.”

“Can I call you back? I need to leave now to keep the surgery on schedule.”

“Okay, GO THEN. Just GO. Make your boss but not your mother happy.”

A pause. “Mom, you’re being passive aggressive.”

“Me? Aggressive? What are you saying? I’m just your old mother. I told you to GO. Hurry up! You’re wasting time talking to your old mother. You should worry about the health of your patient…even though I am not going to be here forever, either.”

“Okay.” Sound of slow, deliberate breathing. “I’m sorry for rushing. But I can’t read your mind, Mom. Can’t you just tell me what you want?”

You should know, Young-ae thought, accusingly. If a baby cries, the mother just knows what it needs. “I’d like you to try to get up here Friday—it’s important to me.”

“Friday? I’ve already rearranged my weekend call. It would be hard to ask for the whole day off Friday, too.”

Young-ae was suddenly aggrieved. This wasn’t just some weekend visit. They were going to sift through their house’s entire history, say goodbye to their past. So busy, so busy, Einstein always said. Inside Young-ae came a faint stirring, like the beginnings of gas. “Einstein-ah, I’m going to get all choked about this. We’re going to say good-bye to the house—hngggnggggh!–and we need to all be together, as a family…”

Silence. Was her son starting to tear up, too? Young-ae wondered, a tad hopefully.

“Okay, okay, Mom, I’ll see what I can arrange. I’ll talk to Dr. Dappleforth about it.” Einstein regretted just downing three coffees in quick succession: he’d have to skip going to the bathroom to keep this surgery on time; Dappelforth ran his ORs like a German general.

“You promise?”

“Promise!”

A smile slowly spread over Young-ae’s face.

 

“He’s coming, Fridaaaaaaay!” she sang to the air. Now she could give herself permission to dream, envision them sitting at their dining room table for a leisurely Sunday dinner without the overhang of dread because they’d be leaving the next day. She’d get lots of beer for Einstein. Marni liked that buttery poppycock mix they made at the Eat Eclairs & Way More Bakery. Reggie required Pizza Rollups, as he could not go to sleep without a snack. She’ll have to make bulgogi one night. Mandu, too. And why not bake some tollhouse cookies? When Einstein’s family was visiting, she wished they had multiple stomachs like a camel, so she could keep feeding them.

“Don’t involve me in this,” Yungman must have arisen, for now he was muttering in Korean from behind the Horse’s Breath Tribune as he sat in his LaZyBoy recliner. Yungman still preferred speaking in Korean, even though it was an antiquated version, its idioms rusted shut, that he’d boxed and packed with him in 1959. “Why do you continue to bother him?–he’s busy with his own life now. An empty nest is a sign of success.”

“How can our son not say goodbye to the house where he grew up?” Young-ae spoke pointedly in English. She was getting all wet-eyed again. She actually liked feeling the salt water gushing to fill the bladders of her tear-ducts. Why? Because it proved to her she wasn’t 100% dead inside, which is what she often felt like when she woke. These days, emerging from a warm, amniotic sac of sleep to face the day’s harsh glare was almost scary; to smell the beginnings of decay everywhere, to look at herself in the mirror and think: how did you let yourself get so old? And with him?

It was only his second day of retirement. Yesterday, he had seemed to be deliberately obstructing wherever she wanted to go—in front of the kitchen sink, the bathroom, the hall closet–yet while never doing anything. Young-ae had felt as if all her insides had been replaced with a bag stuffed full of thistles that poked her, whichever way she moved, or even breathed.

At noon, he’d come calling for his lunch. Here was someone who for the past forty years had his lunch served to him in the Physicians’ Dining Room—so how could he just transfer the responsibility without any kind of discussion? The hospital staff got paid. And she ate whenever she was hungry. Sometimes, the day was just a series of nibbles of this and that. She was not going to appreciate Yungman showing up every day right at the bonging of the town hall clock.

Yesterday, rather than sit and actually contemplate what her days might be like from here on in, she’d distracted herself by constructing a sandwich for Yungman, an assemblage of orphans: last night’s bulgogi, bread-and-butter pickles, squirt of wasabi, chopped carrots, Miracle Whip, a limp but serviceable piece of lettuce, smear of raspberry jam. But as Yungman started giving her directives, mustard instead of “Miracle Whips,” etc., she clapped the two pieces of bread together like cymbals and told him to make his own adjustments. He didn’t even know that in a moment of utter mercy, she’d tweezed an eye of green mold from one of the pieces of bread. She went up to their room in a huff, took a nap, pretending that Yungman was merely on vacation, that she’d have her quiet, unscheduled meals back to herself.

Today, she had a yearning for noodles in a cold anchovy broth. She’d planned to put ice cubes in the broth until it was cold as punch. In a rare coincidence of desire and timing, there were two pears in the fruitbowl, perfectly ripened, to make matchstick slices on top. The noodles would go down salty, cold, and good, the savor of the broth offset perfectly by the sweet crunch of pear.

She shut her eyes. Remembered the boy, dashing, if a bit on the lanky side, in his prestigious navy blue PaeJae High School uniform with the smart cap with the black visor. His eyes had sparkled so. She remembered the pouts of the bigger-eyed, prettier girls, her flushed feeling of triumph.

All right. She would make the noodles. For two. With matchstick slices of pear on top. A dish of kimchi to provide the heat to offset the cold. She would cut the noodles–Yungman did say his teeth were bothering him–so he wouldn’t have to chew as much.

She went out to ask Yungman if he wanted her to add mustard oil. She imagined he might say, “Nengmyun season starting, huh? Your nengmyun is the best.”

Yungman remained obscured behind his newspaper. What was visible: pale, waxy feet, Sansabelt slacks gone shiny at the knees. His toenails needed trimming again. His buttocks had sunk into the recliner, so deep, the chair looked like it was eating and digesting him. One arm was propped on the armrest, where sat a gnawed core of a pear, spreading an ugly wet stain.

She returned to the kitchen. One lone pear. She picked it up from the bowl, instinctively squeezing it for ripeness. It burst in her hand, liquid slime running down her arm. Yungman had obviously gotten to the fruit bowl first, groping, comparing, extracted the best one for himself, left the inedible one for her, didn’t even both to put it in the waste bin.

Now, the cold noodles would be too salty, the briny kimchi only making it worse.

“You..!” She pulled down the newspaper with a karate-chop.

He blinked, like a mole exposed to light. “What?” he said, in a voice that was starting to become old and decayed just like his teeth with their dun-colored fissures. “What now?”

“You…you…you passive aggressive!” she screamed.

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Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a novelist and essayist  Her first novel, Somebody’s Daughter, was published in 2005 to critical acclaim. Her stories and essays have been published in The AtlanticWitnessThe Kenyon ReviewTriQuarterlyNewsweekSlate and The New York Times.  She teaches at Columbia University.

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–Art by Marta Bevacqua

–Art by Alphan Yýlmazmaden

–Art by Seamus Travers