I am sitting outside the dressing rooms exactly where my mother left me ten or fifteen minutes ago, after kissing me goodbye and dissolving into the Macy’s crowd, when the white man who is my father appears. On the couch to my left is what my mother would likely refer to as a whole heap of clothes, little kid shirts and little kid pants that have been discarded by shoppers before me and left in a state of complete and utter confusion. On the couch to my right is a girl who, I have learned, has reached the fourth grade. We have known each other for barely ten minutes. Yet we have formed the kind of immediate friendship that is possible only between children who are yet to discover that even at its beginning every path is an ending one.
Come hear 2017 National Book Award finalist Min Jin Lee speak at LitFest 2018 on Thursday, March 1st at Amherst College. For more event details, click here!
History has failed us, but no matter.
At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money. Both were born and raised in the fishing village of Yeongdo—a five-mile-wide islet beside the port city of Busan. In their long marriage, the wife gave birth to three sons, but only Hoonie, the eldest and the weakest one, survived. Hoonie was born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot; he was, however, endowed with hefty shoulders, a squat build, and a golden complexion. Even as a young man, he retained the mild, thoughtful temperament he’d had as a child. When Hoonie covered his misshapen mouth with his hands, something he did out of habit meeting strangers, he resembled his nice-looking father, both having the same large, smiling eyes. Inky eyebrows graced his broad forehead, perpetually tanned from outdoor work. Like his parents, Hoonie was not a nimble talker, and some made the mistake of thinking that because he could not speak quickly there was something wrong with his mind, but that was not true.
I found myself holding the rear hooves of an upside-down, dead deer while a large, gray wolf paced a few feet away. It was a clear and cold afternoon, ten degrees above zero under a bright Minnesotan sun. We watched the wolf and the wolf watched us. Peggy turned and walked back to a truck piled high with roadkill. A dead calf, donated by a local farmer, peered out from among the tangle of wild limbs. A live rat terrier perched on top of the pile like a conquering queen. She licked at frozen blood.
I was with this wolf, and this woman, and this dog, because I was fixated on the wolf as a cultural symbol of villainy, of evil. I was writing a paper for an academic conference. Peggy reached her arm in among the bodies. “You know,” she called over her shoulder, “after all these years, we still prefer Chicago Cutlery®.” Her arm reappeared with a green-handled chef’s knife.
That was the summer a sperm whale drifted sick into the bay, washed up dead at Mount Martha, and there were many terrible jokes about fertility. It was the summer that all the best cartoons went off the air, swapped for Gulf War broadcasts in infrared snippets, and your mother started saying things like I used to be pretty, you know? Christ, I used to be brave. But you thought brave was not crying when the neighbor girl dug her sharp red fingernails into your arm, until the skin broke and bled, and she cried out herself in disgust. You were still dumb enough to think that was winning.
A white woman, softly sobbing, was hoisted into the back of an ambulance. On direction from the state troopers, Harvell stood idly by. For the second time since he’d arrived, the woman said the girl’s parents were Claudine and Cordezar Brown of Greenwood, Indiana. By “the girl,” the white woman meant the body lying in the ditch, covered by a sheet. Harvell looked at the bus tracks; the skid marks a few yards away, left by the fugitive car; a pair of yellow shoes about a foot apart on the side of the road.
We became homeowners in the middle school cafeteria. School had been out about a month, the halls eerily empty, except for the huge skeleton of a humpback whale suspended 20 or so feet high above. It washed up on shore some years back, it’s bones bleached by the sun and sand. I washed ashore, too.
On Nantucket Island, the median home price is 1.2 million dollars. That’s what they say, officially. Most of the homes around the million-dollar mark have kitchens from the 1950s, and bathrooms from the 1970s. The new owners usually tear them down, or turn them into bunk-style housing for restaurant staff. None of us in the cafeteria ever dreamed we’d own anything, let alone a house, let alone here. I balanced on an itsy-bitsy red chair, nabbed out of a nearby classroom, something fit for a first grader. My knees were in my chest when they called my number.