by Hemmy So
Of all the vegetables in her garden, Mijin loved the perilla leaves best because they required so little from her. No trimming, no garden bed cover, no precise watering schedule. Just sunshine and enough water to quench their thirst, and they produced delicious bounty. She’d miss them when she left for Korea, but her shiny new three-bedroom apartment in Gangnam didn’t come with a personal garden, so supermarket-bought perilla leaves would have to do.
She hummed while picking a handful of leaves for dinner, until her cell phone’s jazzy ring-tone startled her. She placed her woven basket on the ground and fished around in her stained apron pockets. Mijin checked the phone screen. Spam calls had inundated her lately. Her daughter.
“Mmm. What do you need.”
“Hey Mom. Remember how I told you that I’m taking care of Eugene’s cats while he’s on vacation?”
Mijin recalled nothing of the kind, but she felt grateful her son hadn’t imposed that loathsome duty on her. Every time she visited Eugene, his two cats caused her discomfort. Black and white cat hairs floated around her like confetti, fell onto plates of home-cooked food she’d prepared, made her throat gag. Then she’d remind her son furiously that inhaling cat hair can cause lung cancer. But he only scoffed at her. True, she didn’t quite believe this either, but she needed some sort of ammunition to shoot down her son’s unnatural love of felines.
Not that she hadn’t tried to understand. A few years ago, to feel more connected to her son, Mijin had tried hard to imagine enjoying the cats’ company. But ugly facts relentlessly flooded her mind: they gobbled expensive cat food, made the house reek with foul litter box ammonia, shed fur onto clothes, furniture, dinnerware, and food, scratched up furniture purchased with hard-earned money. They didn’t even keep watch like guard dogs, only sat lazily atop couch cushions misshapen from years of cat lounging. Takers, not givers. Her son deserved better. She returned to her campaign of extracting the beasts from his home.
“OK, so what. Why are you calling me?”
“Mom, I forgot to feed them. It’s been almost three days now. They might die. Can you go over there and check on the cats?”
Mijin clucked her tongue in disdain. Her adult children, for whom she and her husband had worked long, laborious, painful hours at a God-forsaken sign shop for forty-five years so they could secure well-paying white-collar jobs, couldn’t keep up with their frivolous hobbies. She wondered why during the past three days her daughter couldn’t find a moment to hop into her BMW and drive twenty minutes to pour kibble and fresh water into bowls. More importantly, why her daughter couldn’t keep her promises. Most important, why her mother had to pick up the pieces and make everything right again.
“Debbie-ya,” Mijin said, pressing hard into her left temple with two fingers. “The cats are not going to die. They’re cats. They live a long time.”
“I don’t mean regular life expectancy, Mom. They’re like people, they can’t survive without water for three days,” Debbie said. “I googled it. Google said that cats might not be able to survive that long without food, especially if they’re old and in poor health. And you know Eugene’s cats, they’re old and mean.”
Google, her mortal enemy. Google, that Silicon Valley company that paid its employees handsomely, something she’d learned from that annoying woman at church with the tight perm who bragged incessantly about the Tesla her rich Google employee son bought for her. Google says this, Google says that. Debbie and Eugene liked to quash any advice their mother offered with Google’s profound wisdom. She hated Google, though she did buy some of its stock. No need to let her hard feelings get in the way of making money. She figured she could sell a few shares once she arrived in Korea to help pay for ballroom dance classes. Or maybe guitar lessons. Possibly aerobics.
“So, do you think you can go over there today?”
“You told Eugene you would do this, not me.”
Debbie exhaled the grunt of disappointment she’d practiced since she was a teenager. Mijin heard it often because Debbie complained often. Not enough new clothes at the start of school, everybody gets to spend the night at their friends’ houses, her college friends are spending the summer in Paris, don’t criticize her choice of neighborhoods in New York City.
“I’ve been really busy lately, and I forgot about Eugene’s cats. I’m working long hours, and on top of that, I have to take the boys to tae kwon do classes and piano lessons every week. And I cook dinner every night. I’m exhausted and I forget things.”
“You’re barely forty and you’re exhausted?” Mijin said. “When I was your age, I did a lot more than that.”
Her lips started forming the words, ready to recite the story she hungered for her children to hear, the story that would allow them to see her. The tale of overnight shifts at the pediatric ICU at St. Luke’s Hospital years ago, a schedule forced onto her by daycare after daycare who refused to accept two small children whose parents’ accented English discomfited the white owners and teachers. An account detailing the abandonment of her dream nursing job to put in back-breaking hours at the sign shop, prepare hearty Korean dinners every night, dress Debbie according to the strict dress code at her Christian private school, make sure Eugene stopped suffering all those diaper rashes. The American dream.
“Yes, Mom, I know,” Debbie said. “I know you worked very hard to give us this life. But right now, I need to know if you can help me with Eugene’s cats.”
“No. Those cats aren’t going to die because they don’t have food for a few days,” Mijin said firmly. “And so what if they die?”
She hung up before Debbie could start nagging. Her phone flashed bright numbers, reminding her that only half an hour remained before dinner time. If she hustled, she could still feed her husband dinner at seven to keep him satisfied and temper tantrum-free. She struggled to remember what she’d planned for dinner, preoccupied by a deep and melancholy annoyance.
With the announcement months ago that she and their father would retire to Seoul, Mijin had hoped her children would finally realize she would no longer service their needs. She’d planted the seeds in advance – extricating herself from their affairs, allowing Eugene to handle the sign shop business, graciously accepting her children’s frequent absences for Sunday dinner, canceling the family cell phone plan. Mijin needed her waning energy and aching body to care for her husband and herself now. She’d promised this to her husband a long time ago, a vow she intended on keeping. She’d made no such promise to her children. As they had so vehemently pointed out many times in the past, her parental oversight ended when they turned eighteen. She had hung on a little too long, she admitted. But now was the time. Time to live her life. A rich life. A selfish life. Their flight departed in six weeks.
Mijin picked up her basket of vegetables and walked towards the house when a quick, sudden movement interrupted the backyard tranquility. She froze, moving only her eyes, scanning her surroundings to confirm she wasn’t alone. And there, scrambling along the fence towards the vegetable garden, she saw it. Beady eyes, rat-like tail and snout, disheveled dirty fur. A low-pitched sound of disgust rumbled from Mijin’s throat. Woven basket still hanging from her arm, she ran into the garage and fetched Eugene’s old BB gun. She’d been waiting for this moment for a while now. Dusty paw prints on her thick black garbage bags, strawberries eaten out of her garden, trails of food waste on the pavement. Possum. Its appearance in the soft sunlight exposed its desperate hunger, and Mijin recognized her advantage. Like a sassy cowgirl from an old Western, Mijin pulled the BB gun up into her armpit and took aim. No one would take from her.
Pow, pow, pow! BBs ricocheted off the fence. The possum scuttled faster, its gnarly claws scratching the weathered wood. Mijin’s confidence soared as each shiny metal orb exited the rifle chamber. Sweat beads hugging her brow, shoulders hunched, Mijin stepped towards the fence with heavy feet, taking closer aim at the rodent. She puffed her chest. Three more trigger pulls. The pellets missed the possum’s flesh but pounded dread and fear into its little head, its tiny black dot eyes seized with terror. Its scraggly plump frame morphed into a blurred blob as it sprinted with fury across the fence line, desperately shoving its body through an escape route underneath a fence board. Mijin relaxed her arms, pulled the rifle down by her side. Still reveling in her power, she chuckled. It was a survivor, that beast, and she respected that.
Once inside the house, Mijin laid the vegetables on the kitchen counter. Her husband had grown up a farmer long before he spent days handling printing machines, breaking ground with posthole diggers, ordering plastic boards, glossy cardstock, sturdy canvas, whatever the customers required. His love of freshly grown Korean vegetables never waned, even though much of his other capacities did. She was glad for it. Homemade Korean food made them strong. Even her contrarian children couldn’t deny that. And her husband needed every advantage he could get as he approached eighty-five and still relied on a pack of Winston Reds to get him through a day.
“Yeobo!” he called out in a hoarse voice from the family room, where he relaxed in a beaten-up recliner watching Korean news over satellite TV. “Junyeok!”
“Neh,” Mijin called out. Even before the strokes, he hated waiting for his meals.
She moved swiftly around the kitchen, throwing vegetables into the frying pan, opening the oven to check on the galbi she had marinated last night, retrieving banchan from the packed refrigerator, pulling small plates from the cabinets. Decades of repetition had transformed dinner preparation from a chore into a meditation, minutes of her day absent of the matters that caused her worry, dissatisfaction, anxiety. And despite his complaints about virtually everything else, her husband always appreciated her cooking.
Just as she plated the galbi onto a serving platter, her phone jingle-jangled. Debbie.
“Mmm. I’m serving your dad dinner. What.”
“I’m at Eugene’s house and I can’t find the spare key. Do you know where it is?”
“How should I know that? I use my own key.”
“I’ve looked everywhere, and I can’t find it. He told me it’s in the garage, but I’ve checked all the shelves and drawers. Do you know where it could be?”
Mijin put her daughter on speaker phone. Eugene taught her that recently, and she found it quite helpful. She shook the freshly washed perilla leaves and dumped them into a bowl. The water droplets looked like dew.
“I don’t want to bother him on his vacation. And you know how he is, he gets so mad if you don’t do everything the way he wants or remember every little thing he’s said. I can’t handle that right now.”
Mijin scooped multigrain sticky rice onto a dinner plate decorated with botanic garden floral patterns. She wished she could bring her dinnerware to Korea, but she couldn’t risk breakage. Made in England. Steam wafted from the rice grains sitting atop bright blue Hydrangea Macrophylla.
“Can you come meet me here? You have a key. I really need to check on the cats.”
Mijin arranged a spoon and chopsticks on her husband’s place mat. She called him to dinner and awaited his arrival, standing by his chair like a butler in case he needed help sitting down. His left leg never quite recovered from the series of mini strokes.
“Your dad needs to eat dinner now.”
“How long will dinner take? You can come afterwards, right?”
Afterwards, Mijin had to clear the table, store leftover banchan in plastic containers, wash the dishes, and take out the garbage. Debbie should have known this, but since she never helped with dinner chores, the thoughts probably never entered her mind. It was also Thursday night, which meant the antiques game show was on. Last week, Mijin had wowed her husband with her successful guesses at the original purposes of the Korean antiques submitted for appraisal and their modern-day value. She liked demonstrating her smarts to her husband who, as time wore on, recognized them more openly. Something about aging and sickness had broken down his masculine pride, making him a high maintenance but affectionate companion.
“I have things to do,” Mijin said as her husband shuffled into the dining room. “Forget about the cats. Good to get rid of them anyway. Your dad is here now.”
Mijin hung up. Her husband sat down gingerly, and she poured him iced tea. His wooden chopsticks grabbed a leafy section of kimchi and deposited it into his mouth. He smacked his lips and chewed slowly, like the sad-eyed cow at his brother’s farm. That bovine lived a long, long time. Her husband grunted with satisfaction and Mijin felt relieved enough to fix her own plate.
The familiar ring blared again as she stuffed her final ssam roll into her mouth. Eugene. Mijin couldn’t decide whether she was lucky or unlucky that both her kids called her today.
“Mmmm,” she said, her cheeks stuffed with food.
“Hey Mom,” Eugene said, the sound of brisk wind making his voice sound small and distant. “Just calling to check on you.”
“I’m fine,” Mijin said, swallowing a chunk of food. “You need something?”
“No, no. Just calling to make sure you and dad are okay. Debbie’s supposed to look after my house while I’m gone. You know if she’s actually doing that?”
No, she is not, Mijin wanted to blurt out. In fact, she had so miserably failed at looking after your house that she asked your tired, old mother to drive forty-five minutes to save her from your wrath. That wrath. Debbie was right, Mijin did know what Eugene was like. Cause him any inconvenience or stray from his set ways of handling life, and he unleashed a vitriol so savage that everyone around him scattered like cockroaches terrorized by a searing light.
“I don’t know what she’s doing.”
“You know last time, she was supposed to take care of my plants while I was out of town, and she killed like half of them,” Eugene said. “She told me she’d learned her lesson, but you never know with her.”
Debbie was right about Eugene. Eugene was right about Debbie. Mijin rarely knew what to do about Debbie, where her mood would take her, what days she’d be kind, what days she’d be absent, who her friends were, where she worked. The ground shifted constantly under Debbie, making her mother feel nervous and uncertain. On days she felt most vulnerable, Mijin looked at her sun-spotted face in the mirror of the antique vanity she’d found at the Mexican flea market down the road and reminded herself that she could only do her best.
“Hey Mom, now that I think about it, do you think you could check on the house just in case? Just make sure the cats are fed and nobody’s robbed the place.”
“I’m very busy, Eugene-ah.”
Like spam calls, her children’s demands. Incessant and unrelenting. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“What are you doing right now?”
“I’m feeding your dad. Then I have a lot of housework to finish. We must prepare for our move to Korea. There’s so much to do – cleaning, packing, throwing out garbage. So much.”
“I’ll help you with all that stuff once I’m back,” Eugene said. “Right now, I need you to go check on the house. I bet Debbie hasn’t even gone over there, and I’ve been gone for three days already.”
She hung up. Her husband sat next to her, hunched over his empty plate, the long remaining wisps of white hair hanging over his wrinkled forehead.
“Was that Eugene?” he bellowed. “What did he want?”
“Nothing. He called to check on us,” Mijin said, trying to sound nonchalant.
Her husband stood up carefully and shuffled towards the garage for his after-dinner smoke. As Mijin began washing dishes, his voice rumbled through the door separating the garage from the kitchen.
Mijin dropped her dish towel and strode into the garage, where her husband sat in a camping chair, a burning cigarette tucked between two fingers. He pointed a stubby finger at torn trash bags. Remnants of fruit and vegetable cuttings and days-old clumps of rice littered the concrete.
“Why is there a mess in here?” he asked.
The possum taunted her. You can’t stop me. I will get what I need.
“There’s a possum trying to eat our vegetables. I shot at it with Eugene’s old BB gun, but it survived. Ayoo, that goddamn possum.”
“Clean it up.”
Mijin swept the detritus into a dustpan, which she placed at her feet as she contemplated how she would re-bag the pilfered garbage. Once again, the familiar jazz beat interrupted her work.
“Eugene called. I didn’t answer it. Mom, he’s going to be furious if he comes home and the cats are sick or dead. And I don’t want the cats to be sick or dead either. I really need your help to get into his house. Are you done with dinner yet?”
Her father stubbed his cigarette into a ceramic ashtray and grumbled, the disgruntled echoes bouncing off the garage walls, which had already been stripped of tools, shelves, and framed photos.
“Aye-cham,” he said before sucking his throat and lungs clear of phlegm, spitting the byproduct into a small pink trash can next to his feet. “Why do they keep calling?”
Mijin pulled the phone away from her face, already damp from the humid summer heat.
“Yeobo, the kids want help with Eugene’s stupid cats.” Mijin clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “Ayoo, those dirty animals.”
She squinted her eyes and waved her hand in front of her husband to signal that she could manage the situation, no need for him to expend his precious energy on this. Debbie’s voice floated out of Mijin’s aging smartphone.
“Mom? We can’t let the cats die. I’m serious.”
Debbie’s father wagged his finger at Mijin. He grunted, licked his finger as though he was about to turn a book page, and shook it again at his wife.
“Help them so they’ll stop calling. I don’t want to hear the phone ring again. I want to watch TV with no interruption. No more calling. Take care of it.”
“Neh,” Mijin responded as her heart sank.
She returned the phone to her ear.
“Your dad said I have to come help you,” she said. “You are lucky.”
“Oh, that’s great. Thank you, Mom. Remember to bring your key. I have a book in the car, so I’ll read until you get here.”
When Mijin sat in her own car a few minutes later, she stared at the ripped garbage bags through the side mirror. The animal took what it wanted, hindered by her gunshots but not stymied, sure of its needs. Mijin wondered when she would accomplish the same. Before she’d made up her mind to retire in Korea, she would have questioned whether her needs were too complex, too demanding. But the fatigue, accumulated over decades of attempted assimilation, challenging child rearing, sweat-inducing business building, never-ending housekeeping, and reluctant churchgoing, had finally broken her insecurities, overwhelmed them with a sense of urgency and desperation. Trot music filled her car cabin, the soundtrack and interpreter of her feelings, the singer’s vibrato capturing a longing like the one that Mijin’s tightly wound insides could no longer suppress.
No guesses tonight for whatever the antiques dealers had on display. Instead, a ninety-minute round-trip drive on freeways flanked by ambulance chasers on billboards with a ten-minute stop at her son’s red brick house to shove a key into the back door. Unless the cats had died. Then she’d have to stay for who knows how long, as Debbie cursed at the air and clenched her fists, asking her mother repeatedly what they should do and how they should deliver the bad news to Eugene. Now the cats must live. The cats must live so Mijin could return home at a decent hour to finish the dishes, re-bag the trash, possess a quiet phone, get a good night’s sleep, prepare for her escape.
A recent guest on the Korean morning show she watched daily had explained that visualizing your desires helped make them come true. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Mijin conjured the cats in her mind as she gathered the emotional strength to finally put the car in motion. She imagined them as they often were, lounging on the sofa, jumping onto the kitchen counter, licking themselves under a sunny window, too lazy to change spots once day turned into night. Then she inhaled sharply and snapped her eyes open. On the other side of the windshield before her, the possum froze in a defensive stance, a chunk of mystery meat hanging from its mouth. They locked eyes.
Only Jesus could have sent her this sign. Her reward for all the money she’d dumped weekly into the church offerings basket. A deliverance confirmed by roaring trot music surging to the apex of its latest crescendo. The possum jerked its head to chomp on its last bite while Mijin plunged her hand into her giant handbag, maneuvering around prescription pill bottles, a wallet teeming with ancient receipts, and uncapped pens. The phone felt warm in her palm.
“You here already? That was fast. I don’t see you.”
“Debbie-ya. The windows.”
“Mom, I’m not going to crawl through a window. I’m sure they’re all locked anyway. No way Eugene would leave a window unlocked.”
The trot singer held a long note, releasing his yearning into the universe.
“Ay, you can see those stupid cats through the windows,” Mijin said, her voice growing loud in excitement. “The big kitchen window, at the side of the house. Eugene puts their food next to that window. Go see if they have food and water. Go see if they’re alive.”
“OK, hold on, hold on.”
The line went mostly quiet, mysterious rustling sounds occasionally filling the void. Goosebumps prickled on Mijin’s neck as brisk air conditioning pumped out of the car vents. She felt smart and she felt hopeful.
Debbie’s squeal pierced the phone line.
“I see them! I see them! They’re alive,” Debbie said, her voice an octave higher than normal. “I see their bowls. There’s still cat food in there. They have water too. Oh my god, I’m so relieved.”
Mijin swam in her own, private relief.
“I told you they would be alive,” Mijin said sharply. “You need to listen to your mother.”
“Yeah, okay. I got it. Thank god,” Debbie said. “I’m going to leave now. I’ll come by tomorrow and pick up the spare key from you. Sorry about all this. Thanks Mom.”
A new song started playing when she ended the call, a prescient tune to which Mijin couldn’t resist singing along for a few bars. Voice lessons, another hobby to explore in Seoul. A bright and sunny day is coming, a bright and sunny day is coming! She hummed the melody as she left the garage and headed to her garden. Once she’d piled her peace offering of decaying food into a small mound next to her vegetable bed, Mijin stood arms akimbo and glanced at the one lit window of the house. Inside, her husband dozed while curled up in his tattered leather recliner, waiting for her return.
Hemmy So is a Korean American fiction writer who, in her former lives, worked as a news journalist and tech and sports attorney. Prior to a long hiatus from creative writing, she earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction’s July 2009 contest and published an essay in the collection Have I Got a Guy for You, edited by Alix Strauss. She is currently working on her debut novel. A native of Houston, Texas, Hemmy now lives in Alameda California, with her husband, two young sons, and four goldfish.