A Cab Called Reliable: A Novel

A Cab Called Reliable: A Novel

by Patti Kim

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312190309
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/15/1998
Edition description: REV
Pages: 156
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.38(d)

About the Author

Patti Kim was born in Pusan, Korea, in 1970 and immigrated to the United States in 1974. She was the Diane Cleaver Fellow at Ledwig House, the New York writers' colony. A Cab Called Reliable is her first novel. It won the 1997 Towson University Prize for Literature and was a nominee for the Book-of-the-Month Club's Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction. She lives in Potomac, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt

A Cab Called Reliable

A Novel


By Patti Kim

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1997 Patti Kim
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8593-6


CHAPTER 1

Our apartment on Burning Rock Court was two blocks away from Sherwood Elementary School. When I started third grade, my mother had told me that I had better know by heart the names of every street I had to walk along and across, or else I would remain forever missing because she had no clue where to go look for a nine-year-old girl stupid enough to lose her way in Arlington, Virginia. She said this place was nothing like Pusan.

In Pusan, my mother, father, little brother, and I used to live in a room behind a grocery store owned by my best friend's mother. Na-Ri and I used to make mud pies, jump rope, bang pots against pans, and sing jingles in front of her mother's store. Our favorite was for Boo-Rah-Boh ice cream cones. It went something like this: Let's meet at noon for a Boo-Rah-Boh cone. We have to meet at noon for a Boo-Rah-Boh cone. No matter how the day goes, let's meet for a Boo-Rah-Boh cone. I missed those cones. I missed Na-Ri.

A school bus screeched to a halt at the intersection of Wilson Boulevard and Oliver Lane. The crossing guard ushered me off the curb of the sidewalk. I looked left, right, left, crossed Oliver, tried hard to forget the ice cream cones, and practiced reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because Miss Washburn, my third-grade teacher, had chosen me to lead the rest of the class into the pledge for the next three mornings. Everyone thought it such an honor to stand in front of the class next to Miss Washburn's big brown desk, place their right hand upon their heart, and say "I pledge ..." while the rest followed. But I dreaded it. I could never remember which words came after "... to the flag of the United States of America." Miss Washburn would surely be disappointed to find out I had been mumbling the whole time. I did not want to disappoint my teacher. I liked Miss Washburn. She had long brown hair with ends that curled into the shape of sixes. She wore lavender dresses that flowed when she strolled up and down the aisles. She played the piano and taught us songs about purple mountains and shining seas. She was nothing like my second-grade teacher, who had crooked teeth and called me Ann, Ann, Ann. If I had been older then, I would have politely told her that my name was not Ann. My name was pronounced like the sound one made after drinking iced lemonade on a hot day or when one began to understand why two plus two equals four. AH. My name is Ahn Joo. Like the "a" sound in "far." Far. The A with the two dots over it. Look it up in the dictionary. Like Aida. Ave Maria. Awabi.

While waiting for cars to pass on Thayer Street, the crossing guard asked me where I was from. When I answered her, she said she had a friend who was from that very same country. Then she asked me how long I had lived in America. "Two years," I said, and held up my two fingers. She smiled, nodded, and let me pass.

A group of older girls walked by me. The tallest of the four wore bright yellow tights and shiny black shoes. She was giggling and talking about boys. They hurried down the street toward the ABC Drug Store, where they would probably buy strawberry-flavored lip gloss, bubble gum, and fashion magazines.

Before turning onto my street, I waited to see if the girls did go into the ABC. I clapped my hands in triumph as I watched them run across the parking lot and disappear through the double doors.

I turned onto Burning Rock Court and skipped the rest of the way home, keeping an eye on the cracks in the sidewalk. Dandelions grew out of them. I stopped to pick a bunch. Then from a distance, I heard my little brother crying. I looked up and saw that he was being carried by my mother into a cab. She was wearing her brown-and-white polka-dotted skirt that clung to her thighs. She took long strides away from our home into the cab and thumped shut the door. Hiding behind a tree, I counted the dandelions in my hand. There were only four. When I heard the approaching car, I looked up to see my mother's stony face behind the half-opened window of a sky blue cab with "RELIABLE" written on the door.

The milk from the broken flower stems dripped down my wrist. I quickly licked it, remembering something my mother told me about dandelion milk being good for nervous stomachs. She also once said that it was wicked for a child to cry in public. She had pointed out to me a little black girl crying in a shopping cart at Pershing Market and said that the girl was a big show-off, bragging to the whole world what little control her mother had over her. My little brother often cried in public, but I was told Min Joo was special.

As I walked toward our apartment building with the black door marked "3501," I passed the parking spaces; the STOP sign that was missing its capital S; windows with blinds and without blinds, with curtains and without curtains; the broken swings at Burning Rock Court; Boris's apartment, which always smelled of garlic and onions; Kavitha's apartment, which smelled of dirty rags; the patch of weeds we cooked up meals for our brothers in; the bench we turned into a house with a sheet and two branches; and the white tree I sprained my wrist against running to first base. Last summer Kavitha's father sat underneath that white tree and performed magic tricks with his cigarette. He looked like a brown skeleton, tall and bald, and wore tattered pants held by a rope and no shoes. His toes were long. His feet were dusty. He looked to me like a man who while walking across the Sahara Desert decided to take a rest in the shade of our tree. My favorite of his tricks, which I called "The Living Ashtray," was when he would flick his cigarette ashes back onto his tongue with his lower lip. No hands. I saw the ashes land on his tongue. I saw him swallow them, too. I thought it was amazing that a man could carry ashes in his body, and when I told my mother about it, she said to stay away from Kavitha and her family because those things were works of demons.

I walked past the tree with a different feeling from the one I had last summer or even yesterday walking home from school. What a silly monkey I must have been to laugh, clap, and sing along with the other children. What a stupid girl I must have been to braid blades of grass into bracelets, necklaces, and engagement rings.

As I climbed the stairs to the second floor, I wondered where RELIABLE might be.

I pressed my ear against the neighbor's door. I listened for the flute I had once heard back in December when I knocked for my father, who wanted to give the American woman next door a gift for the holidays. "Do you want a Korean calendar?" I had asked. But there was now no sound of flutes, only the sound of my breathing and my footsteps.

Our door was not locked. I turned the knob, walked inside, sat down next to my father's boots, and began to cry, remembering the expression on my mother's face. She looked as if I were the last thing on her mind. I had seen that expression before. She wore that scary you-mean-nothing-to-me look on her face whenever she and my father fought.

I was alone in the apartment, but there, right there, I could see my mother sitting in front of the television. I could have sworn she was there. She was ironing my father's dress shirt. It was a Sunday morning, and she was getting us ready for church—the New Covenant Korean Church. An hour and a half away, but my mother woke us up and made us go every Sunday. My Sunday School teacher's name was Howard. He had orange hair, freckles, and wore a shirt that had yellow, green, red, and orange parrots painted on it. He taught us that the devil was a beautiful lying snake and that God spoke through donkeys.

My mother, with her ironing quilt laid out in front of her, pressed my father's collar, cuffs, front side, back side, right sleeve, left sleeve, and told me to pull my dress down, pull my socks up, tuck my hair behind my ears, and wake up Min Joo and Father. Min Joo was combing his hair in the bathroom. Father still slept.

My mother was wearing a two-piece dress. It was pink, with tiny black roses lined up in columns and rows. Her hair was tied in a braided bun. Fake diamond earrings with dangling blue teardrop stones. After pressing my father's shirt, she folded the quilt and pushed it underneath the sewing machine. The iron, still hot and propped up, stood next to the door. On the doorknob hung my father's dress shirt.

I crossed my legs. I waited near the shoes. Min Joo's wet hair was parted down the middle. When he sat next to me, I smelled shampoo. I told him he didn't wash it all out. "Your hair's still soapy. Your hair's going to fall out."

Min Joo shrugged his shoulders, pressed his elbows onto his knees, rested his chin in the palms of his hands, and told me that our father was still sleeping.

"You should've woken him up," I said. "You know what's going to happen, don't you? Don't you?"

I should have woken him up. I should have swung open his door, stomped across the room, pulled up the blinds, turned him onto his back, shaken his shoulders, jumped on the bed, pulled the blanket to the floor, clanged pot lids against each other, and screamed in his ear that Mother was coming with the back scratcher.

Mother came.

Is this woman crazy? Get the hell off of me!

You're not going to wake up? You're still smelling of vodka. I wash and iron your clothes until my tongue falls out, and you stink it up with vodka and cigarettes. What is this smell? What is it?

You're making too much noise. I'm getting up. Stop screaming.

Get out of my bed!

I'm getting out.

What have I done wrong? What is it? Why do you treat me like this? You can't make me live like a dog.

You're making too much noise. I'm getting up.

Lying coward. Where were you last night?

Shut up, crazy begging bitch.

I'm crazy. I'm crazy! Min Joo-yah, Ahn Joo-yah, your mother is crazy. Come in and smell your father's breath. Listen to your crazy mother and smell your father's breath. Smell his clothes. Smell them and ask him where he's been all night.

I'm getting up.

Korea or America, you're just the same. No change. No change.

You're making too much noise.

Where are you going? Are you still drunk? The bathroom's over there. Get in the shower. Take a shower, you coward.

Leave me alone. I'm getting a drink.

There were pink streaks on my father's arm. His pajama pants hung low underneath his belly. He combed his hair with his fingers and walked toward the kitchen. My mother followed.

Again? You're drinking in the morning?

Water, bitch. I'm getting water. Leave me alone.

Drink in the shower.

Are you not going to shut your mouth? Do you want me to smack it shut?

My father swung his arm back and covered his ears. My mother followed him, but stopped. She stopped, turned, picked up the iron, and struck my father on the back of his head. He stopped, gripped the back of a chair, shook his head, then walked on. He got water from the refrigerator and drank it. Min Joo's face was buried in his lap; his head wrapped up with his arms. Mother was breathing heavily. She coiled the cord around the iron and laid it on its side on top of the folded quilt. As she walked to the bedroom, she pulled her earrings off. Clutching them in her hand, she turned around, waved her fist in the air, and with the scary expression on her face, she told my father he would live with regret for the rest of his life. My mother threw her earrings on the dresser and shut the door.

The apartment was quiet. I was alone. I stopped crying.

On the kitchen table was a white box with a red ribbon tied around it. On the top right corner was written Cho, Ahn Joo in Korean. Inside were four perfect little white-frosted square cakes, the kind I had seen only through bakery windows and in storybooks where girls wore yellow bows with matching yellow aprons and had parties with cake and tea. Two of my cakes were decorated with pink ribbons and two with pineapples, and there was a note tucked between the two kinds. In Korean, my mother had written to tell me that the cakes were for me and to eat them slowly and deliciously and wait with patience because she would come back to get me. With my thumb and middle finger I held a piece of cake to my mouth, smiled, and wondered why I had almost cried minutes ago, forgetting that I had seen how rushed, determined, scary, and secretive my mother looked with Min Joo in her arms as she entered the cab that looked ready to drive off far away. I ate all four pieces and licked the wax paper that lined the bottom of the box. I decided to keep the white box to carry my most important things in for when my mother came back to take me to where she, Min Joo, and I would secretly live.

I put in the box the four dollars in change I had saved from milk money I had not used because milk made my stomach turn; the lipstick called Devon Rose #260 I had stolen from my second-grade teacher's purse because I thought such a person did not deserve to wear such a beautiful color; a poem about my mother that I had written in brown Magic Marker called "Tears in the Toilet"; and the rock Boris had tossed up my pant leg during recess. I removed my pillow and stuffed the empty pillowcase with my spelling book because I needed to know how to spell wherever I went; my favorite yellow dress, with buttons the shape of stars; clean underwear, white socks, and the red mittens my grandmother had knitted for me and sent all the way from Pusan in a box full of dried kelp, dried red peppers, and dried anchovies.

Then I placed my box and pillowcase near the door and sat on the radiator underneath the window, looking out for a blue cab with RELIABLE written on the door. I counted the cars that drove by and took in the scene at Burning Rock Court as if for the very last time.

Removed from everything that had gone on the night before and the night before and the night before, I felt that the girl who had seen her mother throw a hot iron at her father because he smelled of liquor, perfume, smoke, and urine again, who had seen her father bounce her mother's head on and off the refrigerator door calling her a begging bitch because she mentioned returning to Korea again, who had seen the dark blue print of her father's hand around her brother's neck, who had felt the same large hand remain seconds too long on her own bottom as he patted her for being a good girl and then on her stomach as he rubbed her indigestion away—that girl was no longer me. That girl would have been standing in front of a mirror reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. But I was here with my most important things packed and ready to be taken to the secret place where only mothers, daughters, and little brothers were allowed.

I began to hum a tune my mother once taught me. I did not know the words to the song, but I remembered it was about a girl who lived in the country and was watching her older brother ride a horse on the road to the city. When his figure became as small as the size of her thumb, she returned to the house and stared out the window. She was sad, but full of hope because her brother had promised to return soon with a pair of silk slippers.

As I saw the sky changing colors, I began to panic because hours had already gone by and my mother had not yet come for me. I panicked, thinking she had forgotten about me or had somehow found out about all the naughty things I had said and done to torture Min Joo and decided it would be best to leave me with my father. I prayed Min Joo did not tell her how I carried him on my shoulders and dropped him on the floor, how I held down his head in our bathwater, how I told him to brush his teeth with soap, how I told him Mother and I had found him underneath a bridge in a Korean village where lepers lived. If my mother knew these things, she would surely never return for me, and my father would find me here with my most important things and never ever let me leave.

With my mother's note in hand, I took my belongings outside. Waiting on the bench, I prayed that Min Joo, wherever he was, would be crying, because my brother was not able to cry and speak at the same time.

From across the court, Boris Bulber saw me sitting on the bench and began limp-running toward me with a bag of corn chips. He was wearing a brown T-shirt and a pair of brown corduroys that were too tight and too short for him. Brown eyes, brown skin, brown hair. Everything on him seemed to match. I wondered if on a map, Portugal would also be the color brown.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from A Cab Called Reliable by Patti Kim. Copyright © 1997 Patti Kim. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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A Cab Called Reliable 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
loafhunter13 on LibraryThing 25 days ago
-The Story of an immigrant Korean family in Northern Virginia trying to deal with changing environments, societies, languages, roles and dreams. A young girl, Ahn Joo Cho comes home from school one day to see her mother leave with her younger brother in a taxi. She and her family are still struggling to adapt to American, where her father had brought them to escape a tyrannical, abusive father in Korea. The girl is forced to grow up quick, being a buffer for both her father against the Western society but for her dreams versus her expected filial behavior. She has to come to terms with her loss of family, identity and innocence. It was decent book, one that could reflect the hardships of immigrant families not ready or able to adapt to their new surroundings. It also shows the stress placed on an already cracked marriage and what can happen as a result. It is hard to sympathize with even the main character, even if you do feel sorry for her at time. In the Banana Yoshimoto style, though the actual story covers a greater time period, it does have the snapshot feel to it. While not a standout in the genre, it is a decent read and a good first novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Patti Kim paints the life Cho Ahn Joo with truth and honesty. Ahn Joo, 1.5 generation Korean American who immigrated to the US as a young girl, deals with hardships within her broken home and at school. She is alienated at school and abandoned by her 'mother,' and left behind to live with her psychologically hurt, alcoholic father. We meet Ahn Joo first as a young girl who sees her mother take her little brother away to a better life. We grow up with her, as she does assumes the responsibility of cooking the steaming rice just right (not to watery and not too dry), laundry, and cleaning. We see her hatred for her father's girlgriend, who leaves both of them after a year to run off with her new white boyfriend. We see her struggle with her emotions and her inability to express what floods her heart. And all throughout her growth, we witness the emergence of a powerful writer. This is an honest novel, a novel that depicts the life of a Korean American girl with all the gritty details--her relationship with Boris, her complicated relationship with her 'abba,' her abject isolation from other schoolmates at school, and her absolute independence. We also see at the end that a novel does not necessarily have to clean everything up and tie everything in nicely and conveniently. A Cab Called Reliable is excellent and honest and filled with feeling. I loved this novel and recommend it highly.