The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 2


by Viet Dinh


My Uncle Sung died where I always thought he would: on the Santa Monica Freeway.
           He had been driving his Jaguar XK Coupe, too fast, as usual. Witnesses describe seeing the car angle to the right, veering across the lanes of traffic as if he had missed an exit. The stroke had been powerful, sudden, irrevocable, and the car drifted and slowed. His foot slipped off the pedal. His hands were on the wheel; he must have tried with all his might to avoid an accident even as his vision turned white, as his chest grew heavy and labored, as his arms shot through with pain and turned numb. He came to rest in the delta between an exit and the freeway, his bumper pressed against the yellow safety barrels—dead before anyone could reach him. His car was three weeks old. The lease paperwork was still in the glove compartment.

The last time I rode with him, I was twelve. He had just bought an Acura convertible, blindingly white. I imagined us the brightest dot on the freeway, swerving around the other, more drab dots. I tried to breathe in the new-car smell, but it was flushed away on the wind. “Learn from me, Jae,” he said, over the roar of the engine. My hair was pushed back hard; I felt it could fly off my scalp at any second. I kept one hand on the side of the soft leather seat, the other in the cusp of the door handle. “If you want to be a success, learn from me.” He swerved in and out of lanes. Other cars honked and flashed their lights. I couldn’t turn my head, because I expected my glasses to be ripped from my face. The speedometer needle slowly inched its way right. I was deathly afraid of pebbles; they cracked on the windshield, and I thought, I could be blind now. It was the most exciting thing in the world.
           We were going to his newest convenience store, the sixth, for a checkup. He said he didn’t trust the manager, a white man. I helped my uncle at his stores, restocking shelves or pushing around a broom taller than I was. He let me have two chocolate bars, whichever ones I wanted. I usually went for the biggest and messiest; I ate them slowly, so when I reached the end of the bar, it was soft and half-melted. I licked the wrappers clean.
           My father, who managed two of Uncle Sung’s stores, never let me have any candy. “For customers only,” he warned. Now and then, he brought home a carton of cheese crackers whose sell-by date had passed or a gallon of milk on the verge of expiring. With my parents, I lived slightly out of date. My uncle was modern; he was now.
           “This is what living is about,” Uncle Sung said, steering with one hand, light and graceful, as if polishing the wheel. Not a hair on his head moved. He smiled wide enough to cover the entire highway, all eight lanes of it. His wrinkles were pressed back by the speed, the thrill, the ride.

I explain to my parents that I can’t go to the funeral; I’m presenting my paper, “The Effects of Genes Bey 1 and Bey 2, Chromosome 15, on Human Eye Shape,” at the upcoming convention of the National Human Genome Research Institute and have new data to collate. Sometimes, after I’ve swum in numbers and TAGC graphs for hours, I hold up photographs of siblings––sets of sisters and brothers, parents and their children—and marvel how they look nothing alike. Relations have always been a mystery to me.
           “You will at least go to his wake,” my mother says. “He is still family.”
           I will try to make peace, because I haven’t yet stopped loving my aunt and uncle.

Being the eldest and most successful son in his family, Uncle Sung wielded casual power over his siblings. His house served as both an immigration center and an employment office for his sister and two brothers. My father was the first he brought from Korea. My parents and I lived at his house, and I took my first steps across the cold, hard tiles of the kitchen. But I don’t remember that. 
           When I was three, we moved out of Uncle Sung’s house and into a small two-room apartment near the two convenience stores my father managed. That whole neighborhood seemed hand-me-down; at one time, it must have been new, but successive waves of immigrants had worn it down, had plastered the walls with odors and stains. I wasn’t allowed to play outside; little yellow flags on our lawn informed us that the grass had been sprayed with an insecticide harmful to pets and children. They stayed in our yard for years.
           We had furniture, Uncle Sung’s leftovers, loaned pieces that no longer fit in his house. The mattress and couch cushions felt damp, clammy. My mother and I shared the bed, and my father, who got up at four in the morning, slept on the couch. Each morning, I heard him wake, shaking his keys, fumbling in the dark for pants and shoes and shirt. If he turned on the lamp, having misplaced something, light leaked under the door, a false sunrise.
           I spent summers at Uncle Sung and Aunt Kwi’s house—it was a marvel, an enormous playground. I had two upstairs rooms to myself, filled with sunlight and glittering dust motes. In the living room, I traced the gilded edges of the tables and chairs carefully, hoping gold dust would cling to my fingers. The side chairs were coated in a blood-thick lacquer—thrones, with strange symbols carved into the backboard. I asked Uncle Sung what the symbols meant. He frowned.
           “Your parents haven’t taught you any Korean?” he said. “I should put you in school. Give you lessons.” But he never did. I asked Aunt Kwi, and she told me that those words were Chinese.
           Aunt Kwi translated for me—she explained why kimchi was buried for five years. She told me what Uncle Sung’s various moods meant, why he scolded me when he really wanted to praise me. I trusted her round face, wrinkled like the surface of an orange, to tell me the truth always, to explain the unexplainable. 
           One day, I asked about the altar in the living room. On it, a small golden urn, with dragons for arms. Also, a black-and-white picture in a wooden frame: a boy, about my age, maybe older, on a rickety bicycle, looking over his shoulder. Incense ash covered the altar, gray and fragrant on my fingers.
           “He’s your cousin. His name is Tae-shik,” she said. “Isn’t he handsome? He had smooth skin like yours.” She rubbed the side of my face with the back of her hand, then with her palm. “Smooth skin is a sign of prosperity.”
           When she touched me like that, I felt safe. No—not safe—that’s not it. Around Uncle Sung, I never felt safe. With Aunt Kwi, I felt at least comforted.

Cars for the wake clog Uncle Sung’s driveway. Mourners. It’s as if Uncle Sung’s cars have come to haunt him: the Ghost of Lexus Past, the Ghost of Jaguar Present, the Ghost of Porsche Future. I see my parents’ car, a white Honda Accord. Three years ago, my father traded in his ten-year-old Toyota for it, and it’s already pushing the eighty-thousand-mile mark. He uses it to shuttle between Lucky Dollar, his everything-99¢-or-less store, and Lucky Korea Garden , his restaurant.
           I haven’t seen Uncle Sung and Aunt Kwi since my wedding two years ago, and I was twelve the last time I set foot inside their house. I take a breath on the sidewalk before stepping in—sixteen years into the past—and a cold fear presses against my right temple.

As a child, I embarrassed my parents by not eating kimchi. I pushed it to the margins of my plate, where it oozed salty, sour juice into the rest of my food. I refused to eat anything it came in contact with. Uncle Sung announced that I was not Korean at all, but a true American, and congratulated my parents. My mother screamed, “Why are you so picky? Why can’t you eat like a normal child?” My father didn’t look at me. But even though it was her kimchi I wasn’t eating, Aunt Kwi never complained.
           “If he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t like it,” she clucked. She pinched my cheeks. “We’ll find you something else.”
           She let me help her cook—I fetched pot holders and handed her the wooden spoons with which she stirred huge pots of turnip soup, the fragrant steam filling the kitchen. In a shiny copper wok, she fried rice in peanut oil, heaped the sizzling rice into a pile, then cracked an egg over it. The egg cooked right on top, and when I poked the yolk with my fork yellow lava ran down the sides. “How do you like your Korean volcano?” she asked.
           “Kwi, you’re spoiling him,” Uncle Sung said.
           “Of course I am,” she said. “Don’t you know anything?”
           My parents must have thought the same thing, but they allowed Uncle Sung and Aunt Kwi to give me what they could not. Only one person could fit in our apartment’s kitchen at a time, and if my mother fried anything, the smell of vegetable oil clung to the walls for days. During the school year, she tried to make a volcano for me too, but we had only one pan, blackened with the flavors of a thousand meals. More often than not, the volcano collapsed into egg-coated boulders. When my mother worked overtime at the convenience stores, my father cooked. That is to say, he boiled water and opened a package of Samyang noodles. He kept my packet of instant kimchi for himself, letting the dehydrated cabbage thicken in his soup spotted with drops of orange-colored chili oil.
           Once, during that last summer I spent with Uncle Sung and Aunt Kwi, I passed their room heading toward the bathroom. Their light was on, the door open. The room smelled of menthol and eucalyptus. Uncle Sung and Aunt Kwi reclined on the bed counting money, stacks and stacks of it, the most money I had ever seen in one place. They had separated the bills according to denomination, their take for the day.
           Aunt Kwi saw me, took a bill, and said, “Tae, come here.”
           Uncle Sung turned, and for a second, I saw what I thought was hope. But it vanished as soon as he saw my Mickey Mouse pajamas. I felt ashamed to be me, ashamed that I wasn’t what he wanted me to be. He leaned toward Aunt Kwi and whispered something in Korean. I was sure it was: That’s not our son.
           Aunt Kwi said again, “Come here.” Her voice trembled, “Jae.” She took a bill from a different stack and said, “If you work hard, you’ll have all this money and more.”
           “You must do well in school,” Uncle Sung added.
           “If you get straight As, you’ll make all the money you want. You’ll never go hungry.” She patted me on the head. “Here,” she said, handing me a five-dollar bill. “Promise to do well in school.”
           “I promise,” I said. I wondered what the first bill had been. A twenty? A fifty?
           “Good. Now go to bed. Uncle and I have work to do.”
           “Thank you, Aunt Kwi.”
           Uncle Sung swatted my butt as I passed.
           I slept with the bill balled in my hand, like a marble I didn’t want to lose. In the morning, it was crinkled and faded, but it was still mine. I don’t remember what I bought with it.

Inside Uncle Sung’s house all these years later, incense hangs stale and thick. I trip on the rows of shoes near the doorway. Aunt Kwi sits on the floor, yang ban dari shins curving beneath her, pressing against the floor. Her white mourning clothes fade into the smoke itself. Other relatives ring the room, and as I enter, everyone stares, wondering if I will say the right thing. It’s common knowledge that I had stopped talking to Uncle Sung long ago and that, more importantly, he had stopped caring.

My mother insisted on having him at my wedding. She had been working on the seating arrangement when she realized that I hadn’t invited them.
            “Jae,” she said. “You must—”
          —respect your elders. This part I knew by heart.
           “The robbery was so long ago,” she said. “Can’t you make peace with him?”
           Sometimes I wished that I researched the emotional blackmail gene that runs through Asian women. “I’ll send him an invitation. Just—”
           “Just don’t seat him at my table.”
           “I will see where he fits,” she said. “But I don’t know why you treat him like this. He is family.”
           When I was young and easily bought, I loved Uncle Sung and Aunt Kwi more than I loved my parents. I wondered if my parents ever suspected, if they saw my sullenness and reticence as anything other than childishness. Maybe that was part of the reason I stayed away from sixteen years’ worth of family gatherings at Uncle Sung’s home—to make up for the love I’d misplaced. Uncle Sung and Aunt Kwi thought I avoided them out of spite.
           Even at my own wedding reception, as soon as I saw Uncle Sung’s car—the newest, shiniest one—I disappeared into the back. The reception was held in my father’s restaurant, so despite my protests, kimchi appeared in three of the seven dishes. 
           I ducked him for most of the dinner until it came time to collect gifts. My wife and I moved from table to table with a silver platter upon which guests could place their wedding gifts: cash, stuffed within greeting cards and red and gold Chinese New Year envelopes. At each table, a speaker rose to say a few words. My uncle spoke for his table. His face was red and puffy, as if he’d been improperly inflated. I could barely recognize him. Aunt Kwi, sitting quietly, hadn’t changed, except for her black hair now streaked through with gray.
           “Jae takes after his father,” Uncle Sung began. His words slurred; he switched from Korean to English midsentence. “He is lucky! Very, very lucky.” Guests at other tables leaned in to listen. “I know he will do better in marriage than he did in business.” No one knew what he was talking about—everyone knew that I had studied biology in college. They excused him for his drunkenness. But I grew hot and anxious.
           “I built this restaurant, you know.” Uncle Sung weaved. He bumped into the table and everyone laughed. The cognac in his glass spilled. “I gave my brother the loan to open his first store. Now, look! He’s got a restaurant like me.”
           I applauded lightly, hoping others would join in, hoping that would be the end of it.
           “I told him secrets. Did you know you can make soy sauce last twice as long by mixing it with salt water and food coloring?” He put a finger to his lips. “Shh! It’s a secret.”
           People looked uncomfortable. They glanced at each other.
           “You know why so many Korean stores fail?” he continued. “Not poor management—but that happens, too. It’s because everyone calls his store ‘Lucky.’ Lucky this, Lucky that. No one wants to shop at a store called Lucky.” Behind him, a neon sign spelled out the name of the restaurant in orange and pink script: Lucky Korea Garden. Anger crept up my throat, pushed its way into my mouth, but I swallowed it.
           He grabbed my lapels and breathed cognac on my face. His thumb crushed the carnation in my buttonhole. Aunt Kwi stared at her plate, her cake untouched. “This one here, he doesn’t know the meaning of sacrifice. He doesn’t know how to sacrifice to get what he wants.” Aunt Kwi tugged Uncle Sung’s sleeve, to ease him back into his seat. “If he were back in Korea , he’d already be dead.”
           Finally seated, he concluded: “Anyway, congratulations.”
           Afterward, I found that he had written a check for two thousand dollars, double what my own parents had given me.

In my Uncle’s house, a pinso has been set up, a mini-museum of Sung Jin Pang , beneath Tae-shik’s altar. I wonder how Tae-shik, ten, dead of dysentery and buried in Korea , can share an altar with his own father, a man so big, so accomplished? Sung’s civic awards are lined up at the bottom, stacked two or three thick. Certificates of appreciation, all framed in the same wood-finish plastic. Some yellowed articles, clipped from the Santa Monica Journal. His business savvy and benevolence have earned him a reputation. President of the Korean Merchants’ Business Association for seven years. Shaking hands with city councilors, the mayor, the governor, the same strange grin on his face. It seems as if he had only that one smile in his repertoire, as if he had practiced until it was perfect, unshakable. I see it in the portrait crowning the pinso: teeth clenched, jaws tense, lips taut and spread too thin.

Have you ever had a gun held to your head? I always imagined it would be cold and hard—steel. But it wasn’t. It was body-temperature warm from being hidden in the waistband of a pair of sweatpants. It smelled of sweat, sour and rancid, and the muzzle slid against my right temple. Was it shaking or was I? With the gun pressed close, my head had no substance, it was as weak and flimsy as paper.
           I had been stocking drinks, standing in front of the refrigerator doors. The bottles slid down their slots, greeting their brothers with a satisfying clink. I formed a Gatorade rainbow: Fruit Punch, Original Orange, Lemon Lime, Cool Blue Raspberry, Grape. The work made me thirsty and cold, but I knew that I shouldn’t ask for a drink until I was finished. Uncle Sung saw me holding one box with both arms and said, “Carry one box under each arm.” He showed me, holding out his arms like a gorilla. “You build muscles that way.”
           The store had been empty for most of the afternoon. The only other person working was the cashier, a middle-aged woman, who stared out the window with her hands on the gas-pump register. She kept a small transistor radio tuned to a lite-rock station, the only sound besides the humming of the drink cases. Uncle Sung was in the manager’s office, flipping through files, examining long rolls of receipt tape, fingers clattering on an adding machine.
           I was still working when he emerged. The empty Gatorade boxes were stacked in the aisles. “Get these out of here,” he said. “Customers need to get through.” I took them to the storeroom. When I came back out, he was giving instructions to the cashier: “If there’s no one in the store, inventory the magazines and rotate the stock.” I went up to the counter, to see if there was anything else I needed to do too, and the electronic door chimed. A man in a sweat suit, the hood pulled down over his head. That’s all I saw of him.
           Uncle Sung was pointing at the coffeepot, half-filled, striped with dried residue, when the man put me in a headlock, a sudden, swift movement that knocked the wind out of me. I wanted to cry out, but his forearm choked my throat. I felt something against my forehead, and I knew it was a gun. I saw the camera in the corner of the store but knew it wouldn’t help. It wasn’t connected to anything—it was there just to deter shoplifters.
           “The money, now!” Uncle Sung looked up, and his face didn’t change. He had an impassive expression, as if he had been expecting this all along. The cashier dropped to her knees and moaned, “Oh god, oh god.”
           “What the fuck you waiting for, bitch? Open the register and give me the money!” The woman blubbered. Uncle Sung did nothing—just stood there. The man’s chokehold tightened. I couldn’t even cough. “I’ll blow his brains out, I fucking swear I will.” The gun pressed harder against my head. The register dinged open and she took out the cash. “Just—just put it in a bag,” the man said. The woman was crying. I was crying; I had my eyes clenched shut, and the tears came as if the man were squeezing them out. I knew Uncle Sung must have been doing something. He was pushing a secret button to alert the police. He was reaching for a weapon, something under the counter. “Give it here,” the man said, and I heard rustling plastic. The woman had returned to Oh god, oh god.
           “You. Old man. Give me your wallet.”
           I opened my eyes. Uncle Sung hadn’t moved.
           “Are you deaf? I said, give me your wallet.”
           Uncle Sung shook his head. “No wallet.”
           “I’ll put a fucking hole in your boy’s head if you don’t give me your wallet right now.”
           I wanted to plead with Uncle Sung, beg him, but I felt light-headed. I wondered if I was already dead.
           “No wallet. At home.”
           He said it so easily.
           The man pulled me back by my hair and shoved me toward the candy display. A shelf caught me right in the solar plexus, solid as a punch. When I turned, the man had already fled, the door chime announcing his departure. Uncle Sung said to the cashier, “Call the police. Make a report.”
           To me, he said, “Let’s go home.” 
           In the car, I had trouble breathing, as if the man still had me by the throat. I could feel a bruise forming where the gun had been. I was drenched in sweat, and Uncle Sung kept the top down. The wind made my skin freezing cold. I couldn’t stop shivering.
           “What happened back there,” he said. Blood rushed in my ears. I could barely hear. “Let’s not say a word to anyone. Okay?”
           I didn’t answer him.
           He got out his wallet. He had it right there in his lap. He took out a twenty. His wallet was thick with them.
           “Here,” he said. He pushed the bill into my hand.
           I crumpled it up and put it in my pocket. It felt like a pebble against my thigh. I’d never had this much money before. If I wanted, I could buy a Transformer. I could get candy and bubble gum and cherry-cola Slurpees. He was buying my silence, and, for a moment, it made me feel better. I was his son again.
           “You’re a good boy, Jae,” Uncle Sung said.

I see that Aunt Kwi has aged immeasurably in the two years since my wedding. She has been crying for days, her eyes and nose wiped sore. Her hands have gotten so rough: years of work, years of sacrifice. She brings them to my face. I feel ten again, craving approval, the way I always feel ten when around my parents, my relations. I could have been dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, holding out both my hands, waiting for her to produce a piece of hard candy.
           With everyone watching, I tell her, “He looks so peaceful.”
           She cups my face and looks at me, for the first time in sixteen years. Her eyes are dark and dilated pools. She rises off the floor slightly, as if she’s rising to kiss me. 
           “Ungrateful,” she says, and pushes me away.

At Uncle Sung’s house after the robbery, I ran straight to my room and lay facedown on the bed. I cried with my face buried in crossed arms. My room was dark. The door and the shades were closed. It was almost like being dead, there on my bed, still. Because of Uncle Sung, my parents were coming over for a family gathering and I was dead.
           By the time I stopped crying, the relatives had arrived. I heard silverware tinking against dishes, the laughter adults share. I crept to the top of the stairs, looked down at the dining room, where everyone was gathered around the table.  My parents, my other aunts and uncles, my cousins––it was as if no one had noticed my absence. Uncle Sung’s voice boomed from below:
           “He didn’t even bother to check me. See, I was smart. I had over five hundred dollars in my pocket and I told him I had nothing!”
           And they all congratulated him on being so smart. My other aunts and uncles—my parents—I couldn’t believe it. He had left out my part of the story. My head still ached from where the gun had been pushed against it, and he hadn’t told anyone. I thought this was supposed to be between us. I returned to my room.
           Eventually Aunt Kwi came.
           “Jae, are you hungry? You should go down and eat something.”
           Just seeing her made me burst out in tears. She hugged me tight to her chest. I burrowed into her warmth, wiped my nose against her shirt.
           “Don’t be scared,” she said. “It’s over now. It must have been a fright. But you’re safe now.”
           I told her everything that had happened: the gun, the threat, the lie. I was in her arms, my words coming out in sobs and gasps, and when I had finished she stood up in the dark, away from me.
           “Listen,” she said, resolute. “You must never tell anyone this.”
           “If you respect me and your uncle, you will keep this quiet.” Her voice had grown hard, and I knew that I was not their son, that there was a line in their love that I could never cross, that I could not compete with Tae-shik, forever ten, silent, riding away on his bicycle, looking back over his shoulder. 
           “Now,” she said, “come downstairs and have dinner. If you love me, you will never tell anyone what has happened.”
           As I approached the dinner table, the adults raised their voices together, “Ah! There he is. Such a brave boy!”
           “Brave?” said Uncle Sung. “He’s a chicken! He ran as soon as he saw what was going on.”
           Aunt Kwi squeezed my hand hard. My lower lip trembled and I chewed it to keep it still. I went to my parents and said, loud, “I want to come home tonight.”
           They looked surprised, but I could tell that it wasn’t completely unexpected.
           “Okay,” my father said, “you can stay with us for a few days.”
           “No,” I said. “I don’t want to come back. I never want to come back here.”
           Conversation around the table stopped. My mother held me close and said, “You don’t mean that. You’re just saying that because you’ve had a terrible scare today.” Uncle Sung’s grin flicked over my way, and I turned my gaze to the floor.
            “Go eat,” my mother said. “We’ll talk about it at home.” To the other adults, she murmured: “He’s still frightened.”
           At the children’s table, the other kids pestered me: What was it like? Did you see the gun? What did he look like? Aunt Kwi, making sure everyone had enough to eat, skipped me on her rounds. Instead of picking out cuts of grilled pork or sesame-oil bean sprouts, she shoveled heaps of kimchi onto my plate, right onto my bab. She did this wordlessly, her sleeves brushing my face. I knew this to be her way of saying, You are lucky to be eating my food. You are lucky to be alive.
           When the kids got noisy, Aunt Kwi scolded us: “What’s all this noise?” She put her hands on the shoulders of all her nieces and nephews except for me, but looked straight at me when she said, “Don’t you know how to be quiet?” To the other children, her voice must have sounded jovial, joking. But I could hear the ice: Don’t you know how to respect your elders.

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