Short Grain Story Contest, 3rd Prize, Grain Magazine, 2016
The three of us were riding in the front seat of our Big Uncle’s sunny Chrysler Cordoba. Uncle had left it for Father before moving his family back to Korea. Things were beginning to look up over there, he said. The car came in handy because Father now drove to his warehouse job instead of taking the 24-hour bus. Sister made big loopy waves out the window and when the wind nearly ripped her arm from her shoulder, she squealed like a pig. We were heading for a motel near the airport where Father said a woman there would take care of us now that Mother was gone and where Family Services couldn’t find us.
The last time FS came for Father, he didn't put up a fight, so the cops didn't have to throw him to the pavement and take out the cuffs. That was a Saturday, and the snot-nosed kids from the project stopped playing basketball and came around Trayvon’s front yard to stare and kiss their teeth. Upstairs, a woman in a grey suit spoke in a low voice to Mother, who had locked herself up in the bathroom to put some powder on her face. When Father returned from the police station that night, he cried under Mother’s bedroom window, going on about how sorry he was for hitting her and promising to never touch her or the bottle again. And for a time he kept his word until dumb Mother let slip about that man at the textile factory again. Father was back into the fridge for beer, then on to the basement for his stash of home-made rice wine. His voice always sounded a little different when he came up from down there.
This time around, Mother was preparing dinner. You could always tell what type of mood she was in by the way she washed the rice. When she was happy, she held the edge of the pot with both hands like a steering wheel and swirled it in a gentle circular motion and drained the cloudy water into the sink four times. After soaking it in cold water for exactly fifteen minutes, she would place the pot in the rice cooker and turn it on. Sometimes, she washed the rice like she lost something valuable, making slow figure-eights in the pot with one hand, while singing songs from the old world. Sad stuff about a boy who left the village and was supposed to return to his girl after making some money but stayed on with the town’s tramp. When she was angry, you could see the white-knuckles of one hand gripping the pot’s rim, and the other clenched into a fist, kneading the rice like the way that fat man worked the dough at the pizza joint. You could hear the grains cracking. Mother told us cracked grains made the rice taste sour, but she never told us why. All I knew was that our rice was different from the one Trayvon and his family ate. Theirs was long and brown, with mushy beans in it. Different too from the rice that Deepak brought to school which looked like toenail clippings and smelled even worse. Our rice was soft and pearly and just sticky enough for a perfect mound to be picked up with our chopsticks and shoveled into our mouths. When it was done just right, there was always a touch of something sweet in it.
Sister and I were on our pull-out sofa bed in the living room, watching Fantasy Island. Our favourite scene was on, when that man-child rings the bell in the tower and points to a plane in the sky to announce its arrival. We stood on the bed, pointed to our water-stained ceiling, and shouted, "Zee plane! Zee plane!" It was then that Father stomped up the stairs and into the kitchen. He yelled at Mother, but I couldn’t make anything out. I was trying to listen to what the tall man in the white suit was saying to the little man as people were getting off the plane. And Sister was stuttering, like she always does when things get a bit heavy around the house or when she is on the floor at church filled with the Holy Ghost and the spit’s coming out of her mouth. After Father punched the second hole through the kitchen wall, Mother calmly wiped her hands on her apron and went upstairs. She came back down with a suitcase and her lips all done up the same colour as her ruby red dress, wiped my crybaby sister’s mouth with her hand, and told us that she was going to visit a friend for a few days. You watch over her, she mouthed to me from the back door.
The motel was in a strip plaza with a bar on one end and an empty swimming pool on the other. There was brown slime along the rim of the pool and dead leaves bunched up in the deep end. Father parked the car right in front of our unit. Across the parking lot, there was an arcade, tanning salon, and an adult video store. Our room smelled like an ashtray and a greasy curtain covered a small window facing the airport runway on the other side of a barb-wired fence. Every few minutes, a plane took off. It felt a lot like Pastor Kwan’s descriptions of the end of the world, when the ground rumbles and tears apart and sucks all the sinners down into it.
“I like it here,” Sister said, jumping up and down on the bed. “Are we staying long?” Father sat on the edge of the other bed and lit a cigarette.
“Until Mother comes back,” he said. His voice was returning to normal again. Someone knocked on the door and Father stubbed out his cigarette quickly before he went to open it. A woman stood there, held Father’s face in her hands, then turned to us with a smile. She wore a long brown skirt and shoes that were flat and not shiny with high heels like the ones Mother put on whenever Father worked his Friday night shift. And her eyes were different from Mother’s, too— big and soft with none of that dried clumpy mascara stuff. Those eyes reminded me of the card I received from my grade four teacher last Christmas with a painting of oil lamps burning inside two rooms of a house during a snowstorm.
“Hi Kyung Hee,” she said. She kneeled in front of Sister and offered her some rice rolls, which she took like a scaredy-cat. “So pretty now.” She stroked Sister’s head. Then she looked over to me. “Yong Su, you’ve grown into such a big handsome young man.” I could tell my cheeks were getting that way when I did something embarrassing and people saw it. Nobody, except Mother and Father, called us by our Korean names, so hearing it come out of this woman’s mouth made me feel strange even though it was said in such a warm way. I straightened my back and bowed my head slightly, the way Father always taught me, and said thank you.
“Mrs. Chung will be here to take care of you for a few days while I am at work,” Father said. She stood there, holding her purse with both hands in front of her skirt and nodded her head. She looked around the room as though the walls and dresser and TV reminded her of something nice that happened to her recently. Father reached into his pant pocket and pulled out a bunch of coins.
“Take your sister to the arcade,” he said. “Mrs. Chung and I need some time to talk.” In front of the tanning salon, next to the arcade, a man in a white suit stood near the entrance smoking a cigarette. It was not like the ones Father smoked, which were short and stubby, or the ones Mother hid under the backyard porch that tasted like mint leaves. His was slim and brown with a plastic filter. He looked like he had spent too much time in the sun and was as wrinkly as raisins around his eyes. When he smiled at us his teeth were so shiny that I forgot to smile back. When we walked past him, I could feel his eyes burning holes into our backs.
The arcade was full of white kids. I could tell they played a lot of hooky and put their hands up girls’ skirts whenever they felt like it. They turned and eyeballed us when we entered. The manager, with big pits on his nose, looked at us over his newspaper. “You kids are too young to be in here. I’ll let it go this time because you’re probably visiting from somewhere’s else. But don’t be calling the cops on me.” He snorted and flapped open the newspaper. “They probably didn’t understand a thing,” he said to the white kids, who turned back to their pinball machines. Sister played Ms. Pacman and I played Donkey Kong. I never got the Donkey part because there was never anything that looked like one in the game. I was good in the early stages, where I only had to jump over barrels and climb ladders to rescue the girl that Kong takes hostage. When we were down to our last coins, I told Sister to stay put, that I was going to ask Father for more. Halfway across the parking lot, I heard sounds coming from our room, like the ones Mother made when she let Father back into her bedroom sometimes. The door was slightly open with the chain holding it in place, so I could only see into part of the room. Mrs. Chung’s skirt was crumpled up on the floor. It reminded me of a dead animal on the side of a highway. On the bed, I could make out her bare back, wet and slightly arched like she was trying to touch her chin to the ceiling. She was moving up and down slowly, the same way my sister rode the coin-operated horse at Galleria Mall. A foot stuck out of the blanket behind her. I knew it was Father’s because of the nasty gash on it—a souvenir, he said, from stepping on an explosive when he was hunting the Commies who killed his parents. As I stood there, I knew better than to knock on the door and ask for more change. If I did, I thought something awful would come out of it—a kind of shadow might fall over everything in our lives, one that could never be erased. So I just turned back and returned to the arcade.
The white kids were cheering on some guy with fingerless leather gloves break the record on Asteroids. Sister was sitting on a bench by herself in the corner. When she said she was tired and hungry, I told her I was going to stick around and that she should go back by herself. I walked her out to the curb and watched her cross the parking lot. Father came to the door. He had on his pants and a white sleeveless undershirt. She said something to him and he looked my way. I couldn’t tell if Mrs. Chung was still inside or not, but in that moment, for reasons I couldn’t quite understand, I was happy for Sister. They went inside, leaving the door open for me.
When the arcade manager told all of us to scram because it was time to lock up, me and the white kids spilled outside together. Nobody said anything to me and the kid with the fingerless gloves talked about getting some weed and going over to his place. I stood there in front of the blinking neon sign and watched them turn the corner. The door to our room was closed now and the lights were out. I didn’t feel like going inside just yet, so I wandered over to the swimming pool, squeezed through an opening in the fence, and sat with my legs dangling over the deep end. There was a rumble like a thousand Kongs running to my left, then a loud whooshing sound. I looked up at a plane lifting off the runway. It was so close I could make out the outlines of passengers looking out of the small yellow windows. I wondered if they could see me sitting there at the pool. I remembered Mother saying once after the FS people left that someday she was going to take Sister and me to a better place on one of those big jets. I thought about where this plane might be going and if it was to a better place and whether or not Mother was on it without us.
The rest of the time at the motel was a blur. Mrs. Chung came and went, but I never found out what happened to her afterward. When we returned home five days later, the house was filled with the stench of something rotting. Father went into the kitchen, picked up the pot of rice from off the counter, and dumped it out in the backyard. He swore under his breath. Sister pinched her nose and opened the windows and doors. I went upstairs and opened the door to Mother’s bedroom. She had taken all of her clothes off the hangers in the closet and her lipstick was lying on the night table, still open and cracking.
That night, after Sister fell asleep, I stepped out into the yard. The air was sticky and the sky was full of clouds with the moon hidden behind one of them. A million ants were crawling all over the mound of rice. Some of the grains were being carried away, one at a time, and in the flimsy light, they looked liked maggots moving along the grass. In the distance, a plane was headed in the direction of the airport, but there was something about it that didn’t seem right. It was leaning too much to one side. I thought about the people inside and how scared they might be. When it looked like the plane was going to be okay, I lifted my arm and pointed my finger toward it, but nothing would come out of my mouth. At that moment, I felt like the little man on Fantasy Island who could never look eye-to-eye with anyone except some bratty child he had to watch over. Like him, maybe I would never grow any more than I already had and for the rest of my life I might always be looking up at the adult world around me, and even past it sometimes, adjusting my eyes to catch a bit of whatever good might come down from the sky.