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Authors: David Yoon

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chapter 26
the bad joke

Bing-bong.

Bing-bong.

It’s just Dad, working the floor near the entrance with a mop.

Bing-bong.

The trio of flies square-dance above me.

It’s hot. Southern California always skips spring for summer. The chocolate is in the walk-in cooler.

I’m wearing an outfit of warm blacks: orange-black pants, brown-black Kraftwerk tee. I pick at my wristbands, also all warm black.

On the surface, it looks like nothing has changed. I am Frank, The Store is still hot, Dad is mopping as usual.

But in reality, everything has changed. It’s hot because the world wants to remind me: one day soon it will be summer, school will end, and we’ll all go to college. Me. Q.

Joy.

I don’t want to think about that just yet.

And Dad: hidden beneath Dad’s usual work tee shirt is a small round scar as smooth and shiny as a drop of tan paint. You couldn’t guess the guy recently survived a gunshot.

And me?

I once read some graphic novel where the hero lost his virginity and was disappointed to find that he felt the same the next day. Boys, he figured, weren’t like girls. They didn’t have hymens to break. There was no physical evidence of the event. The next day the hero felt nothing but anticlimax.

What a stupid graphic novel that was. It got everything wrong.

Because if you cut and pry me open right now, you will discover my insides sparkling like a geode across every spectrum imaginable. Look closer and you will see whole cities of crystal teeming with tiny minions of living light all pulsing in chromatic order—ROYGBIV—as they deliver their novae along my limbs.

Novae, nova, Latin for
new
, newly born stars.

I lean on the counter and grin like an idiot.

Inside me, everything has changed.

I take out my fartphone and message Q.

I lost it, old bean.

Your mind?
says Q.

Last night,
I say.

There’s a pause, then a hailstorm of openmouthed surprise faces.

How do you feel?
says Q.
Can you fly?

Let me see,
I say.
Nope, not yet.

“Aigu,” says Dad, thumping his back with a fist.

“You need to let me do that,” I say.

“I am okay,” says Dad.

I glance down at the cash register. The paper ticker tape is streaked with pink, which means it’s running out.

“Dad, can you change the register tape?” I say. “I don’t know how.”

“Okay,” says Dad. “I doing.”

While he fiddles with the register and a new roll of tape, I grab his mop on the sly. When Dad finally looks up, the whole floor is gleaming.

“Frankie-ya,” says Dad with a chuckle. “Don’t mopping!”

It’s too late—I’m already wringing out the mop in the bucket and taking it out back to dump the gray water. Dad peers at the floor tiles, the corners, the edges, then at me.

“Anyway you doing good job,” he says.

This is Dad’s way of saying
thank you
, so I say, “You’re welcome.”

There’s a flurry of customers—waves, they always come in waves—including Charles, who gives me yet another tiny scroll to study. I unroll it. There is a penis, a sperm, an egg, and then an embryo in a sac. It says

FROM WATER INTO WATER INT
O WATER

BACK TO WATE
R AGAIN

First of all, what’s with dudes drawing penises? Stop drawing penises so much, dudes. Otherwise, I’m surprised to find myself understanding this scroll. I think. Maybe. Humans
are mostly water. Water of different kinds: blood, bile, saliva, blablabla. Those waters mix with other waters, and out of that comes life. It’s a miracle and a mystery.

Water is life; lack of water is lack of life. It makes me think of the windward and leeward slopes of a mountain. The windward side will trap precious moisture, and the leeward side will be forever deprived of it, creating a lush green slope on one side and a barren gray one on the other, separated only by a thin, sharp ridge. Bugs born on the leeward side know only struggle. Bugs born on the windward side, only bounty.

Immigrant metaphor incoming. Say you’re born into a war-torn country. You cross a border—which could even be invisible, not even a thin sharp ridge to define it—and suddenly you may find yourself on the windward side: a safe, clean, modern society.

How is that?

I don’t know. The first hard part is crossing that ridge. It’s also the simplest.

The other hard part—learning how to actually live life on the green windward side, well. That’s more complicated.

Pretty good scroll this time, Charles.

“Dad,” I say. “Were you scared when you first came to the States?”

“Me?” says Dad. “No.”

“Really?”

“Mom scared. Me, maybe little bit scared. Anyway, scary.”

“Wait. So you
were
scared.”

“Yeah, I’m scare long time. We first coming, no nothing. English? Only so-so. Only menial job we can getting. Money?
Aigu. Three hundred dollars only we having. Almost two years we staying—”

“Then you stayed at Dr. and Mrs. Choi’s house for two years eating nothing but ramyun and kimchi rice, mhm.”

Dad smiles at the ground. He knows I’ve heard this a million times.

“I’m just curious, Dad. What were you scared about when you first got here? What was your single greatest fear?”

Dad smiles, thinking. He’s not necessarily happy, though. He just tends to smile when put on the spot. It’s more wincing than smiling.

“We scare,” says Dad, “maybe we coming all the way to United States, no nothing we having, maybe we borrowing money from friend, maybe we borrowing money from family. Maybe no success business, kids going bad school, maybe no house having. Waste time. Go back to Korea, aigu. They trouble making. Whole family becoming financial burden to everybody. Everybody say you failure making, better stay Korea first place.”

“So, shame.”

Dad nods gravely. “Paek family—you never meet them—car wash business they trying. Total money they losing. Finally? Go back Korea. Oh boy. Whole their family they prisoner, so-called financial bondage. Mr. Paek have heart attack. He die.”

Dad slices the air with the back of his hand. “Not me. No way.”

“Are you not scared of anything anymore?”

Dad laughs. “No.”

“You’re all set?”

“We doing okay, Frankie. You going college? Nice girl meeting? Make beautiful baby? That’s it. I die, oh, Frankie-ya, you doing good, I smiling smiling. Final breath I taking before
shuffle off this mortal coil
.” Dad laughs his cuckoo laugh.

I laugh too. “Dang, Dad, why you gotta go straight to death?”

I have the urge to ask him straight up about Hanna. This feels like a chance to do that. Or maybe not—because he stops laughing on a dime. He gets this weird lost look. Scared, almost. Is he thinking about her right now too? Is he wondering if he’ll never see Hanna again before he dies?

Dad can’t seem to figure out where to set his eyes, so he looks at the clock.

“Hey, you organizing walk-in cooler yet?” he says.

“Uh, no.”

“Ya, you go doing right now. We going Gathering soon.”

“All right, all right, I’m going.”

“Hurry up,” he barks.

“Okay, Dad, jeez.”

I grab my jacket and shut myself into the howling cold of the giant fridge. Things with Dad always go like this. We’re talking, everything’s great, and then suddenly he’ll get all psycho about something and shove me away. It makes me feel like a lunar lander on approach that only winds up slingshotting away instead of making contact.

I slam cases of beer and juice around. I marry loose cans to form complete six-packs; I rotate in new milk and set aside expired cartons. I’m so annoyed that I’m working at double
speed, so fast that when I emerge out into the heat, I catch Dad doing something with a guilty look.

He’s got a skinny plastic orange container. It’s pills.

“What are those?” I say.

“Just vitamin,” says Dad. He’s already in his Gathering-appropriate polo shirt. “Medicine bottle I reusing. B12, calcium, fiber. You better taking vitamin too.”

“Teenagers don’t need vitamins, Dad.”

“Anyway we going now. Pali kaja.”
Hurry up, let’s go.

“Let me see those vitamins.”

“Pali kaja,” says Dad, pocketing the bottle. “You driving, okay?”

We get in Dad’s old QL5. I notice the front edge of the driver’s seat has frayed and split open.

“Fine, let me take some of your vitamins, then,” I say. I say it too loud, like I’m insisting on picking a fight. But I know those are not vitamins.

“This one only old people special taking,” says Dad. “I buying regular multivitamin tomorrow, for you taking.”

And then Dad’s quiet the whole drive. Normally he’d be pointing out the fluctuating ethnicities of the passing neighborhoods, or how all small businesses everywhere are struggling except ours thanks to Mom-n-Dad’s hard work and sheer guile, but not this time. I want to figure out what the hell’s going on with him. I want to ask:

  • What are those pills really?

  • Are you mad I came home so late last night?

  • Are you feeling guilty about Hanna?

  • Are you feeling weird about me leaving soon for college?

I even want to ask:

  • Can you tell I lost my virginity last night, and does it make you feel awkward?

I teeter on the edge of asking these questions but never do, because I know I won’t get any real answers anyway. Makes for a terrific thirty-minute drive.

We get to the Songs’ house. I step out into the air made briny and sweet by the nearby ocean and six plumeria trees, each individually underlit. Who has the time and money to install a special light for each tree like that?

Rich people.

I reflexively look at Dad, who’s busy snapping a loose thread from the front edge of his passenger seat. So that one’s tearing, too. Again I wonder if Dad is happy. I wonder if he’s envious of how Joy’s dad managed to race so much farther ahead of him despite starting from the same line. I wonder if he’s envious, having saved for so long to buy his prized QL5 only to watch his junior mentee go on to buy a QL6, and then a pair of QL7s.

I hope not. I hope he had a fixed finish line that he one day crossed and stopped running because that’s just his kind of happiness.

Here’s what I imagine rich people like Joy’s dad to be like:
forever chasing a finish line that’s actually the horizon, never to be reached. Is that a kind of happiness too?

Joy’s dad’s face appears on a security screen before we can even touch the doorbell.

“Ri-sunbae osyeotseumnida!” he cries.
Mentor Li is here!

Inside smells all warm and garlicky and sagey. I mumble my
annyong haseyo
and bow, give Mom a hug—she’s already here, having called a Ryde on her fartphone for the first time ever, very exciting—and climb the stairs to Joy’s room, where the Limbos are.

“Hey, guys,” I say.

“Hey, Frank,” say the Limbos. I notice John Lim and Ella Chang are sitting next to each other, but not touching. That’s some discipline, right there.

Andrew Kim’s on his back gazing up at his phone, using it for what he calls
mirror training
, which is where actors study and perfect their own facial expressions.

Joy appears all in black. When she takes my hand, I can see our blacks match: cool on cool. “There you are,” she says. “Can you help me with something real quick?”

“Huh?”

“In this room.”

She leads me quickly to the vast shimmering darkness of her parents’ master bedroom and spins around to give me the longest kiss in the history of people ever.

“I missed you,” she breathes.

“Me too,” I breathe back.

“Expect regular breaks like this all night.”

“Roger that.”

“Ooo,” say two small voices.

Me and Joy shoot our gaze to a corner of the dark room, where little people crouch by a potted plant.

“Ben, you guys go somewhere else,” barks Joy.

Ben, Joy’s little brother, darts giggling out of the room. He’s followed by Anna Kim, Andrew Kim’s little sister.

We roll our eyes in sync, get back into character, and reenter the Limbo room.

“You just flip the circuit breaker if it trips,” I say. “Just turn stuff off first.”

“Good to know,” says Joy. “Thanks.”

The three Limbos look at us, unimpressed with our charade. No one has ever been interested in circuit breakers, ever.

“Why bother pretending?” says Ella. “Just tell us you’re going on a make-out break.”

“Make-out break,” says John Lim, in a way that sounds like
Good idea, Ella.

“Everybody!” shouts a voice from below. “Dinner!”

We turn to head down. John Lim and Ella Chang dawdle.

I look at Joy:
Aw, let them dawdle.

Dinner is Joy’s mom-n-dad’s version of gastropub food: craft beers, whiskeys, hearty roasted chicken and beef sliders and sweet potato fries and so on. It’s great. They even give us kids those little flights of beer, where you get four tiny glasses of different beers—ales, IPAs, lagers, I have no idea—on a slat of wood with the words
BAR SONG
burned into it. Pretty extravagant.

The grown-ups sit at the grown-ups’ table. The big kids sit at the big kids’ table. The two little kids—Ben Song and Anna Kim—bury themselves on a far couch with a tablet and play
Karate Fruit Chop
.

I take a sip of something called a Scotch ale, immediately start to feel shit-faced drunk, and push it away. Andrew Kim pounds his like it’s an energy drink.

“My old friends,” says Andrew Kim. “The sky changes, and will ever change again, and still again.”

“Huh?” I say. The guy is talking like fake Shakespeare. Fakespeare.

John Lim sips his tiny beer. “I think he’s trying to be philosophical.”

Andrew nods slowly, like he’s at church.

“Anyway, I think what Andrew wants to talk about is the winds of change, as in graduation, and then summer,” says Ella. “And whatever happens to us after.”

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