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Born in Korea in 1970, Patti Kim immigrated to the United States when she was four. Kim has a B. A. in English (1992) and an M. F. A. (1996) from the University of Maryland; she won the 1997 Towson University Prize for Literature and was a nominee for the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction.
A Cab Called Reliable (1997), from which we excerpt the final chapter, is a work heavily laden with the weight of autobiography, though its surface is clearly the result of much aesthetic artifice. Kim herself has said that "emotionally, the book is very much autobiographical, but the events are not."
In fact, the events of the novel merely constitute the surface narrative, which functions rather like the chain on a charm braceletit provides the structure to which the more important elements attach themselves. Under the surface, the novel reads like a record of the real and imaginative longing Ahn Joo feels for her lost mother, who took Ahn Joo's younger brother and disappeared in a cab from the "Reliable" Cab Company when she was only eight years old. Living alone with her alcoholic father, enduring his depression, romances, and abuse (both explicit and implicit) for years, Ahn Joo awaits the day when her mother will return, her faith sustained by a single cryptic note. But her mother never reappears, and Ahn Joo finds voice in her increasingly complex and poignant attempts at fiction and poetry.
In the end, Kim has created a fiction about a woman whose psychology expresses itself in a narrative about her own growth as a fiction writer. It is somewhat surprising to find the novel so often marketed in the Young Adult category, but perhaps that is because the narrative begins in a naive style and becomes increasingly sophisticated, following the underlying theme of Ahn Joo's growth as a writer. In the chapter we've selected, the theme of food preparation (typical in ethnic fiction) is particularly double-edged because Ahn Joo's name sounds like "side dish" in Korean, the kind eaten as an accompaniment to liquor.
A Cab Called Reliable dramatizes what will be apparent as an odd lacuna in the work of Kim Ronyoung and suggested implicitly in the work of Susan Choi later in this collectionthe complicated relationship between the Confucian father and the Americanized Korean daughter, a relationship all the more charged because of the father's loss of personal and cultural authority. The father becomes radically disempowered in a new country in which womenat least on the surfacecommand, and are required to display, more public power. In the way that Theresa Hak Kyung Cha draws on the shamanic tale of Princess Pari as an important subtext, Kim implicitly draws on one of Korea's central tales of female virtue, the story of Shimch'ong, the Blindman's Daughter.
Kim has taught at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and currently teaches fiction writing at the University of Maryland. She is working on her second novel.
from A Cab Called Reliable
You liked anchovy soup, so I stunk up my hair and the house to cook it for you. You wanted eel, I almost burned down the house smoking it for you. You liked live squid, so I fought with its tentacles to dump them in the kimchi for you. I cut them up, dumped them in the stinging red sauce, and they were still moving. You wanted to listen to old Korean songs, so I bought a tape of "Barley Field," "When We Depart," "The Waiting Heart," and "The Wild Chrysanthemum" at Korean Korner for you. For weeks I heard, "Above the sky a thousand feet high, there are some wild geese crying," "Where, along the endless road are you going away from me like a cloud? like a cloud? like a cloud?" "Lonesome with the thoughts of my old days. " I had to eat my corn flakes with crying geese and rivers that flowed with the blood of twenty lovers. You wanted to read a story about rabbits, so I borrowed The Tales of Peter Rabbit for you. You liked cowboy movies, so I bought John Wayne videos for you. You liked to garden, so I stole Mrs. Lee's perilla seeds for you. Your help quit on you, so I skipped two weeks' worth of classes to fry shrimp, steam cabbage, boil collard greens, and bake biscuits for you. You liked Angela's mother, so I drove to her store in Southeast D.C. to set up a dinner date for you. You thought you were losing your hearing, so I laid your head on my thigh and removed the wax out of your ears for you.
You sat on the couch. Your feet rested on top of the table. Your gray eyebrows fell over your drooping lids. On top of your heaving stomach, your hands were folded, and the remote control was balanced on your left thigh. You flipped through the channels when I told you I had grilled the croaker and that my car was up to 9,000 miles. You flipped through the channels when I asked you to show me how to change my oil. Without turning your head to look at me, you said that I had to get under the car, that I would crush my head, that I would die. Too dangerous. You told me to get it done and that it was cheap, as you handed me a twenty-dollar bill from your shorts pocket and walked to the kitchen table to eat your grilled croaker. But it was a Sunday evening. Everything was closed on Sunday evenings, and I could already hear the knocking.
"I can hear the knocking."
You broke off the tail end of the croaker and bit into it, leaving the fin between your thumb and middle finger. You chewed the bones and spit them out. "Knocking? That's something else. Not oil problem."
"Anyway, I need to know how to change my oil."
You sunk your spoon into the rice. "You write anything?"
I lied to you and told you I had written two stories.
"That's it? When you write something big? Write something big for me."
"I am not going to write something big for you. That's impossible."
"What about what?"
"Your stories." Your chopsticks poked the middle of the croaker. The skin slid off. You'll save the skin for last, right after you've slurped its brains out, after you've sucked its eyes out. Makes you smarter. Makes you see good.
"One's about that woman you told me about. You know, the one who lived on Hae Un Dae Beach with her daughter. And the daughter always wore that black-and-white knit dress with the snowflake patterns?"
"What about them?"
"Well, the daughter grows up and finds a job at a bakery and leaves her mother on the beach."
"That's not true."
"I know. I'm still working on it."
You looked at me, but I stared at the thin layer of grease floating on top of your water. You wanted to call me a liar, but instead you asked, "What about other?"
"It's about your friend who had the two wives. The first one was a little crazy, so he brought in the good-looking second one who sold cosmetics?"
"What about them?"
"The crazy one ends up jumping out of their apartment window on the eleventh floor."
"Didn't happen like that. But sounds good. Second one sell better than first one. Dying at end is good."
"Just show me how to change my oil."
"The first story, that kind don't sell. You need violence. America likes violence." You spit out your bones. "Like this story. I know. Robber breaks into doctor's house with gun. `Give me your watch, jewelry, money. Give me everything.' Doctor's not home, but doctor daughter's home. She gives him fake diamond ring, fake ruby ring, fake everything. Robber's happy and goes. Robber tries to make money, sees everything's fake and gets mad and goes back to doctor's house, kidnaps doctor's daughter, and puts tattoo snakes on all over her body. So no one marry her because of tattoos."
"People with tattoos get married."
"Not all over body. Korean man don't like tattoos."
"Then they shouldn't get tattoos."
"Man don't get tattoo. Girl gets tattoo because robber puts on her."
"And he thought she would never get married because of the tattoos?"
"Oh yeah. That's true story." The spinach in your teeth moved.
"Here, you've got spinach in your teeth." You waved your hand at the toothpick and dislodged the spinach with your tongue.
"You buy part and oil?"
"Bought part and oil." You pushed yourself away from the table. "Fry croaker next time. Not enough beans in rice. And you boil spinach too long. Too long. Nothing to chew."
I followed you outside to the driveway with my oil filter and bottles of oil. The crickets started making their noise, and you told me to turn on the porch light. I turned on the porch light. You told me to turn on the driveway light. I turned on the driveway light. The moths and gnats flew in circles above your flat top azalea shrubs like they wanted to drill holes in the air. You told me to get the lightbulb with the hook and the long extension cord on it. From basement, not back there. From basement. You hung it on the hood of my car. You told me to get, you know, car has to go up. The red metal things where the car goes up. And brown carpet in garage. Rags in shed. Bucket behind shed. Not that bucket, stupid. Flat bucket to go under car.
"There is no flat bucket behind the shed."
"It's a triangular basin. It's not a bucket. Buckets are cylinders and have handles on them."
You threw the bucket under the deck, slapped your right calf, and mumbled something about hell and the mosquitos that surrounded you.
You stood in front of my car. The armholes of your tank top were stretched out showing your chest. Your plaid shorts hung underneath your round hard belly, and your socks were pulled to your knees. You waved the four fingers of your right hand to come. Come. Come. Stop. Your head jerked back, and your chin formed another fold of skin, as you burped. Tasting the croaker again, you licked your lips and swallowed. The crickets screamed from your garden. The streetlights came on, and the mosquitos gathered underneath their light. Slowly, you kneeled and pushed yourself with your slippered feet underneath my car.
Your back rested on the piece of the brown carpet that used to cover the family room, wall to wall. One inch padding underneath. Every step, our feet used to sink in, and our toes would grip the standing fibers. You used to yell, "Take off shoes! Take off shoes!" at my friends, and they would run across the carpet with embarrassment, cheeks turning pink, and leave their shoes at the front door.
The lilac bush collared the driveway light, making it look like a groomed poodle standing still in an angle of your triangular garden. In front of the light, a rock with the glowing "3309" in white paint. The left side was lined with azalea bushes like four green basketballs growing out of white pebbles. The right side was lined with pine trees that looked like four green miniature teepees. And the side that lined the edge of our front porch, more azalea bushes, but with flat tops like coffins. In the center of it all, the stump of the magnolia tree you chopped down because its leaves were clogging up our gutter. The Spanish moss you had planted surrounded the stump and began to climb the rotting bark.
You placed the basin underneath the spout and unscrewed the blue filter. The black oil poured out onto your fingers, then into the basin. You wiped your hand with an old sock.
"Where you drive your car? Oil is so black."
"Let me do it. I'll catch the oil."
"Don't touch anything. Your hands get dirty. Keep clean hands."
"I don't care if my hands get dirty."
"Keep clean hands."
"What do I need clean hands for?"
"Keep clean hands to write."
The oil dripped into the basin. Standing up and wiping your hands on the sock, you told me about Miryang. Miryang. Miryang. Miryang. I know. That was the village you grew up in and in that village was a bridge you had to cross to get to school in your bare feet even during the winter because your father bought you only one pair of shoes on New Year's Day, which you stuffed in your pocket so that the soles wouldn't wear out. And when the soles wore out, you nailed wood to the bottom of your shoes, but the wood gave you splinters, so you poured soil in your shoes; it felt just like walking in a fertilized field.
I know about the tree that stood next to the well. The tree that you climbed and napped on. The tree from which you saw the well holding the floating village virgin. The tree under which the village grandmothers peeled potatoes. You've already told me about the man with three teeth and eight and a half fingers who ran the village grocery. Who would get so drunk by early afternoon that he'd give you a bottle of soju rather than the bottle of vinegar your mother was waiting for at home. I've already seen the soybean woman rolling her cart along the dirt road through the village. The chestnut woman who strung her roasted nuts on strands of her own hair. The cows bumping into each other within the fence. The stink of manure in your mother's garden. The stink of sewage when it rained. The rice-grinding factory where you met your mother-in-law. You've already told me about the girl with no eyes marrying the man with no ears. About hiding from your father when school tuition day came around because he'd make you work in the field. Yes, I can hear him yelling, "What good is school? What good is school? Go work in the field." I know about how he broke your watch on your wedding day trying to strike you across the face. It was your engagement watch from Mother. You didn't know then, did you? That she would leave us. Why don't you tell me the truth? Is she my mother or isn't she? How else could she have so easily left me? Why don't you just tell me the truth? I already know about your brother reading books by candlelight underneath a quilt that caught on fire. You don't have to tell me about your sister who was knuckled by your mother so often that she had a dent on the right side of her head and lost her mind and is now steaming rice and boiling potato roots for Buddhist monks. Don't you think I remember the apples, eggs, chestnuts, persimmons you stole and hid in the hole you dug and lined with rocks next to the village manure pile? You don't have to start singing about trying to forget, trying to forget. About walking to the sea sands from day to day. About how summer has gone; fall has gone; now the cold winter in the sea. Abba, I know the women divers searching for clams have disappeared. Stop it. Stop singing about trying to forget, trying to forget by walking to the sea sands from day to day.
You closed my hood, and I drove my car down. You picked weeds out of your garden while I put everything back in its place. You waited for me. When I walked to the door, you followed me in, saying, "Joo-yah, remember when you sing Bbo gook bbo gook bbo gook seh?"
"Abba, I don't remember that song."
"Bbo gook bbo gook bbo gook seh ..."
"Abba, I told you I don't remember. Stop it." You saw me roll my eyes. Your shoulders jerked back. Three folds of skin formed on your chin. You removed your gray hat and scratched your bald head. Your belly grew as you took your breath.
When I walked upstairs, I heard you say, "No matter how bad my father treat me, I never talk like that. Never walk away like that."
I did not hear the usual sounds of the evening. No commercials from the television, no faucet running, no flush of the toilet every two hours, no refrigerator door opening and closing. I did not hear you speaking to Angela's mother in Korean on the phone. How was business today? Did you do well? How's Angela? I sent you a letter. Did you get my letter? Ahn Joo? She's writing her stories upstairs. You didn't call me down to make you Sullok tea or peel apple-pears or listen to your stories about kite fights, crispy grasshopper legs, and midnight runs to the village nurse's window where she changed her clothes in the light. I waited for you to call me down, but I heard you climb the stairs, pass my room, and shut your door.
That night I opened my window. The passing cars on Morning Glory Way were the first sounds I noticed when we moved here. Never heard cars whiz by like that tucked away on the fifth floor of our apartment at the end of Burning Rock Court. I thought a family room with fireplace, living room, dining room, a country kitchen, basement, four bedrooms, two and a half baths were too much for us, but you said, "Future. Future. Think about future." So I thought about the future when I entered junior high and high school, and I raised my hand when I didn't understand how rectification, amplification, and oscillation worked in explaining electrical currents or why bromine was called bromine. I raised my hand when I had to go to the bathroom or if the boys in my lab group were eating all the peanuts we had to weigh. I memorized Xe for Zenon, At for Astatine, Pb for Lead; postulate number one, the points on a line can be paired with the real numbers in such a way that any two points can have zero and one; postulate number two, if B is between AC, then AB plus BC equals AC; Il a mis le café/Dans la tasse/Il a mis le lait/Dans la tasse de café.... I thought about the future as I stood in front of Mr. Huggins's geography class and recited Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida ... all the states in alphabetical order within two minutes. I thought about the future as I bowed and received my classmates' applause.
When future, future, future finally came, the walls of our house were too close together, the ceilings weren't high enough, the floors weren't low enough, and I needed more bedrooms.
Across the street, Mrs. Goode's dogs panted, barked, and jingled the fence. The crickets were going mad, and birds screamed at each other. Mrs. Cutler's high heels tapped quickly against the sidewalk. Mrs. Winehart's car wouldn't start. The phone next door rang. The lawn mower roared. When the wind blew, the screen of my window rattled.
I went downstairs to prepare your tea. As I waited for the water to boil, I shut my eyes tight. But the mahogany bookcase you built when I entered college, the television case for which you hand-carved the legs, the pine coffee table with the drawers that took weeks to make, the kitchen cabinets you stained, the round breakfast table you made me stand on when you cut out its top, the hardwood floors you laid in the living room, and the oyster white kitchen walls you painted stared at me, even behind my closed lids. I could let the water boil and all this wood go up in flames.
Light came from underneath your door. I put down the tray, knocked, and slowly turned the handle when I didn't hear your usual, "Uh." On my hands and knees, I slid the tray into your room.
You had already spread your quilt out on the middle of the floor. Your box of a pillow on the right side. Bare windows. Empty walls except for the photograph of Mother's blurry face tacked above the breakfast-in-bed table. I could never make out what she looked like in that picture. Her hair blew in her face, and she looked like she was shaking her head. No, No. Like she didn't want to be photographed with all those pigeons. A tape player and a digital clock on top of the same table. Underneath, a shoebox of tapes. A pile of three red floor mats in the opposite corner. You sat under the window and fanned yourself.
"Open the window if you're hot."
"Too much noise outside."
You lifted your chin and asked, "What tea did you make?"
"You know, the usual. Sullok tea."
"I thought you make ginseng with honey."
"Why would I make ginseng?"
You reached over for the tray and pulled it to the edge of your quilt. "Because you want to say something important to me." You said it slowly. You wanted to get all the words in the right order.
With legs crossed and hands folded, you sat in the center of your quilt and waited for me to tell you. I wanted to pour your tea and join you, but I remained on your wooden floor near the door.
In Korean you asked, "Ahn Joo-yah, what is it?"
I wanted to tell you that I needed you to tell me about the princess-weaver and her lover, the cowherder, who met at the bank of the River of Heaven every year. How was it that they fell in love? Why did the king separate them? How is it that they meet every year?
Excerpted from KORI by . Copyright © 2001 by Heinz Insu Fenkl and Walter K. Lew. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.