Hot Damn

Christina Aguilera’s singing vibrated through his skull, threatening to mix up his words

Collage of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City screenshots by Rachel Ossip

The following is an excerpt from Sandi Tan’s novel Lurkers, out today from Soho Press.

The only time Rosemary remembered seeing her father happy was when he was playing Vice City. Instead of jacking cars, shooting hookers and tussling with cops, he strolled along Ocean Beach, its simulated Miami beachfront, minding his own business. From the boardwalk, he would gaze out at the undulating orange waves. For hours.

If he got in the way of a stray bullet or became the unlucky victim of a mugging, he picked himself up and started over. When he was released from the hospital, he’d walk, and walk, and walk, until he got back to the water. At no time would he steal a car or hijack a bike to speed up his journey—that, he knew, was the surest way to attract attention.

Sometimes, for a change of pace, he headed to the bridge leading to Starfish Island. This was the most isolated spot that he knew of in Vice City. And he would stand on its pedestrian ramp, staring out at the bay where the water was blue, not orange, and the lapping of waves could be heard.

If anyone walked in on his game, he’d turn around and say, “Boring, right?” He’d say this grimly, like a scientist pushing technology to its limit in order to collect important data. Not that this was any different from the way he pursued everything else; the man was terminally embarrassed to show pleasure.

“Maybe all he wanted was to be someplace else,” Rosemary said to her younger sister, a week after his funeral. “Maybe he should have just taken a vacation.”

“Don’t be obtuse,” said Mira, looking up from her homework. “He hated traveling. He hated, like, airport security asking him perfectly normal questions. He even hated being on the freeway, away from the two gas stations he ever used. Can you just imagine him, like, on a Greyhound bus, with all those winos and child molesters?”

“Remember how he played Vice City, though?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Maybe he just wanted to be someone else. You know?”

“Blond dude in a Hawaiian shirt?”

“Maybe he did.”

“Maybe, maybe, maybe . . .”

The girls felt a certain nostalgia for how simple life had been just a month before, when their father was alive. There was a time for everything then. They were home from school at 3:40, ramen boiled at 3:45, homework was pulled out at 4:00 and at 4:02, the Mystery Boom Box started blasting its infernal melodies.

Like clockwork each day, Christina Aguilera’s voice bounced off their house, their garage, the brick floor of their patio, as well as the walls, garages, and patios of the five other houses with yards that backed onto theirs.

The sisters could never figure out where the boom box was; echoes made pinpointing impossible. But it had to be one of the houses visible to them from their den, or that their den was visible to. The music always began just as the girls laid out their books, as if some diabolical imp with birding binoculars had been watching and waiting by his stereo.

“I freakin’ hate that album!” Mira got up and slammed the windows shut. “Someone should go out and just shoot whoever’s doing this to us!”

“I vote for Dad,” said Rosemary. They both giggled.

Their father, Mr. Park, was 60 years old and a man of the old school. He hailed from the South Korean port city of Pusan, where even his degree in electrical engineering could not guarantee him work. Apparently, there had been a glut of engineering grads in his province and many of his classmates wound up working in fisheries or as stevedores. After fifteen years as a security officer at the port, he emigrated to America and found work at a second cousin’s tofu restaurant in LA’s Koreatown, becoming its oldest busboy at forty-two. It was in that lively, compact enclave that he met and married the girls’ mother, Joon, a woman then half his age and the only daughter of an embittered pastor. When Joon’s father died a year later, dutiful Mr. Park, whose conversion to Christianity was as new as his marriage, left the restaurant and took over his father-in-law’s ministry.

He believed in hard work, family and, incrementally, the values of the Korean evangelical church. After the ’92 riots destroyed much of Koreatown, he and his young wife took their 2-year-old, Rosemary, and retreated to Santa Claus Lane in Alta Vista, a family-centered community crouching in the benevolent shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, twelve miles north of LA.

Santa Claus Lane was idyllic compared to Koreatown. It was about a third of a mile long, lined on both sides with mature deodar pines and protected at both ends by stop signs. A sign that said dip stood at its middle, right outside the Parks’ house. Had Mr. Park’s English been more proficient he might have taken it as a slight—he was always touchy—but linguistic prowess and malice being absent, everybody lived peaceably.

He remained nervous around black people but decided that settling down in what their realtor called a “mixed neighborhood” would be the best way to assimilate Rosemary—and her soon-to-be-born sister Miracle—into the American way of life. Besides, before buying their careworn bungalow, he’d counted the number of churches within its two-mile radius and come up with thirty-four. Black people of faith didn’t scare him, not even the singing kind.

In the years immediately following the riots, Mr. Park withstood stares and taunts from all kinds of people while doing simple chores around town. Once, a black woman threw a carton of sour milk at him while he was filling up at the gas station. But he rarely feared real trouble. His faith in God grew stronger by the day, and with his savings he started his own ministry, All-Friends Worship, the local chapter of a vast Korean evangelical network whose flagship was a literal cruise ship docked in Gyeonggi Bay.

All-Friends Worship was a blue clapboard Victorian with an improvised, concrete slab extension. It looked as if a semi had backed into a strip mall, dropped off some old granny’s house, then vamoosed. Not that aesthetics mattered to his flock. There were small pockets of Koreans, refugees from the riots, scattered around the San Gabriel foothills, and for many of them, Mr. Park’s church was the one place they could meet others of their own kind and speak uninhibitedly in their own language. For the women of this type, All-Friends became a home away from home. They came to church to compare their children’s test scores and exchange crockpot recipes; they discussed gaming the discount racks at Macy’s and how to find the one sales rep who would speak Korean if her supervisor wasn’t around. One enterprising woman even started a Texan line-dancing club, whose sessions boldly collided with Bible Study Thursday.

Because of these women, Sundays at All-Friends had the chatter level of a fish market back in Mr. Park’s home city of Pusan. When it didn’t bring him nostalgia, it brought him the shivers. Because of these women, Mr. Park decided against letting his daughters learn Korean. Korean inspired a henhouse insularity in women that he didn’t want his daughters to have. Whereas with men, Korean was a stabilizing force—it was blood, gave them identity. It was not something they clung to out of desperation because they feared all else.

Not learning Korean was fine by the girls. Rosemary detested the Korean language on aural grounds. When Korean rolled off the tongues of Westerners who came to the language late in life, it took on a strange baroque musicality, like drunken Italian. But when native Koreans like her parents spoke it, it sounded guttural, coarse, accusatory. It skewed combative whether one was asking someone on a date or threatening them with a cleaver.

Sometimes Rosemary didn’t know what bugged her more—having to hear Korean spoken all Sunday, or the fact that her father’s church had a name with bad syntax. All-Friends Worship. First, there was the weird hyphen; then the ambiguous logic: Was it an exhortation for all friends to worship or a worship belonging to all friends, in which case an apostrophe was missing?

At school, the kids who took an Asian language were mainly adopted Chinese girls. They studied Mandarin only to please the parents who’d rescued them from the fleapit orphanages of Fujian—and they always looked miserable about it. If she’d had a say in her own ethnicity, Rosemary would have opted to be a Latina, not of the stumpy Central American variety but the whippet, Gap assistant kind; she wanted to be the type who could bleach her black hair chestnut and still have it look natural. Like a less trashy Christina Aguilera, with quadruple-pierced ears and a Grumpy Bear hoodie from Hot Topic. In other words, just Latina enough. And oh yes, a nose stud.

Rosemary didn’t mind the Mystery Boom Box as much as Mira did. Sure it was loud, and whoever was playing it had to be either deaf or out of their mind. But at least there was a reliable schedule to the madness. It began at 4:02 every day and ended at 8. Two rounds of Aguilera’s Stripped, followed by a couple hours of KROQ. It might have made it harder to concentrate on calculus, but she did enjoy watching the reactions it provoked in her otherwise sedate, otherwise non-communicative parents.

It became dinner conversation.

“Kee Hyun, the music. We must stop music,” her mother would say. “For the girls.”

Her father would grunt and chew on a pickle. “Maybe they stop soon.”

“Stop soon?” Her mother would take her father’s bowl before he was done eating. “Music has been here three weeks. Girls hard for study, Kee Hyun.”

“Maybe I go tomorrow.” Her father would grab his bowl back.

“You always say tomorrow. Yesterday you say tomorrow. Last week you say tomorrow.”

“Maybe I go tomorrow this time.”

“You always say maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe!”

Hot damn! I go tomorrow.” It would be the only time the girls ever heard their father swear.

One evening, Mr. Park went looking for the boom box. He had considered wearing his minister’s uniform but decided against it lest it appear he was using the Lord’s authority to settle petty scores. He walked back and forth past ten different houses before he found what he hoped was the correct one. It was hard to tell because of the rush-hour traffic whizzing past on Lake Ave.

Under the roar of the cars, he practiced over and over his opening words, “Excuse me, Sir, Madam, I am your neighbor,” improvising a series of friendly gestures and a facial expression approximating a smile. During a lull in the traffic, he took a deep breath and entered the property. It was a Craftsman bungalow, just like his, but desperately in need of two new coats of paint. Under his breath, he practiced, “Excuse, Sir, Madam, please, I am your neighbor,” as Christina Aguilera’s singing vibrated through his skull, threatening to mix up his words.

He walked up the driveway quietly and peered into the backyard. Shivers. Propped up on a couple of apple crates, speakers aimed at the back fence, was the Mystery Boom Box. Booming. The rest of the yard was a patchwork of junk—dented aluminum siding, rusted barrels, rotting fruit from a dying grapefruit tree. Yet on the back of the old Mustang resting on cinder blocks was a gleaming Jesus fish, a reassuring sign that he would find common ground. He jogged to the front of the house.

Before he got to the porch, a fat woman in a red housecoat pushed open the screen door and bellowed: “What ya want?”

“Excuse me, Madam, please, I am your neighbor,” he began. He gave her a little wave.

“Git outta my yard!” The woman’s orange hair was slick from the shower and her thick glasses made her eyes emphatically huge.

“Please, your music, Madam. I live over there.” He waved vaguely toward a bunch of houses, not wanting her to know where he lived. An overweight teenage girl in shorts joined the woman at the door. She had her mother’s freckles and square jowls. “Music too loud for ya?” the girl said, in the same jeering tone her mother used.

Mr. Park nodded and started to back away. He felt that he had registered his point, and gave them a quick wave goodbye. As he walked briskly off their property, he heard one say something to the other. The mother started cackling—the throatiest, most lurid laughter he’d ever heard coming out of a woman.

Approaching home, he half expected his daughters to sprint out and give him a hero’s welcome, the kind of lapping affection they’d routinely showered him with when they were younger.

Instead, it was his wife who came out the front door—scowling. “What’s matter? You don’t find house?”

“I found house,” he said, his pride wounded. “Of course, I found house!”

“Then why still music?”

Mr. Park glared at his wife and walked into the house. There, he saw the girls doing their homework, with the den windows still tightly sealed. His heart sank. He plodded to his bedroom and shut the door.

Mr. Park said very little that weekend. The girls took it as a sign that his mood was improving when on Sunday afternoon, he agreed to their usual game of post-church badminton, even with the boom box going full blast.

As a student in Korea, Mr. Park had been a badminton champ who stunned opponents with his ruthless, lightning-fast smashes. But in America, with his daughters, he played American badminton—soft strokes, big loops, lots of laughter, lots of pointless running. He always took on both the girls at once, and deliberately let them win most of the time just so he didn’t have to watch them sulk.

The girls noticed something different about his game that evening—the old Park Kee Hyun of South Pusan Technical University was reemerging, stroke by stroke. Soon, he was slamming the shuttlecock across the net at such velocity that at one point, it grazed Rosemary’s arm and left a crimson line. And he wasn’t letting the girls win, either. Mira called the game off when she realized they never got past two or three volleys. Their father grabbed a few loud gulps of iced barley tea and retired to the house with his head held high.

People were unexpectedly generous to the family in the week following Mr. Park’s funeral. Even Kate Ireland, the solitary, vaguely Asiatic brunette across the street came over with a bag of decaf beans from Starbucks and a Hallmark look of sorrow. Kate’s mother would have done a lot more, but coming from Kate, the Parks knew this was plenty. In the early days, when Mr. and Mrs. Park were still new to the area, Kate never even waved hello.

In all their years as neighbors, the Park girls hadn’t had any contact with her, always telling each other that she was the kind of person they would hate to grow up into—mousy, friendless, repressed. Kate’s mother, on the other hand, had been an exuberant, retired white lady right out of the Lifetime channel, bringing by star-shaped cookies around Christmas; sadly, she had moved away. The girls liked Kate’s German shepherd all right, when it was still alive and would wag its tail from behind the window. But why have a dog if all you did was lock it indoors like a cat?

Mrs. Park insisted she was responsible for Kate’s new neighborliness. A few days after the German shepherd’s death, Kate had gone into some kind of trance while watering her geraniums. She hadn’t noticed as water gushed down the sidewalk. It was Mrs. Park who ran over, turned the hose off, sat the woman down on her own front step and let her sob for ten minutes. It was then that Mrs. Park finally learned the dead dog’s name: Bluto.

“Death bring living people together,” Mrs. Park said to her girls. “Even though dog dying not as bad as people dying.”

Somebody sent the grieving family a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They couldn’t figure out who it was until they scrutinized the packing slip in the Amazon box and found a greeting from Mira’s cello teacher: “I’m Sorry.”

Church volunteers returned all the personal effects from Mr. Park’s office, and Mrs. Park told them that neither she nor her girls would show their faces at All-Friends again. Going back there would only remind her of her husband’s lack of peace with God even as he pretended to serve Him. How could she look any one of the parishioners in the eye? Her husband had betrayed all of them by simply giving up.

There was one saving grace. His body was not interred at All-Friends, which didn’t have the right building codes, but in the mausoleum beneath the biggest Korean church in Orange County, fifty miles away. This meant she had an excuse not to visit as often as a widow should.

As the period of mourning faded away, Mrs. Park’s concerns sharpened. How would they buy groceries? She couldn’t drive. How would they make the money to buy groceries? She had nothing but a high school diploma, from a provincial school near the North Korean border. The Koreans she knew in America had never heard of her district, let alone her high school’s excellent cheerleading program.

For the first few weeks, she walked to the nearest mini-mart where she picked up milk, bread, ramen and peanut butter. It was three-quarters of a mile away, not a difficult walk on a cool spring day, but it would be far less pleasant in the fast-approaching summer. Once a week, her husband’s Koreatown relatives would bring her tofu and surplus produce such as cabbage, lettuce and spring onions, and she tried to make these last. But she knew this arrangement couldn’t go on forever. These distant cousins weren’t generous people—they were acting out of duty, and duty, unlike charity, had a limited hold on the American mind. She learned to take the bus to a supermarket three miles away. But the interminable wait at the bus stop, often with suspicious-looking types, made her fear carpal tunnel from gripping her purse so tight.

Once, she waited twenty minutes with a frail, white-haired black woman in a security guard’s uniform who tried to put her at ease with friendly conversation. But she was nervous about her poor English and didn’t say anything back. Later, she regretted her unfriendliness and thought about how melancholy the woman had made her feel—a woman that age shouldn’t have had to work, let alone wait for the bus home after a twelve-hour shift watching a vacant lot. That said, the old woman had a job, which put her in a better position than Mrs. Park herself. All she had was a 2003 Camry with a full tank of gas sitting in her driveway, not going anywhere at all.

Her husband had left behind the modest bank account of a decent, naïve minister. His poor financial planning was, she knew, partly her own fault. Five years before, she hadn’t let him spend $500 to take part in a regional church seminar on money management. As it turned out, all the younger, more ambitious Korean ministers in LA and Orange Counties attended and, according to the church circulars, gleaned inspiration about fund-raising and business development, while Mr. Park lagged farther behind.

The mortgage payment was $1,200 a month, and they had seventeen years to go. If they lived very frugally, with both girls maintaining good enough grades to remain in their schools’ scholarship programs, Mrs. Park reckoned that they could survive for two years on her husband’s savings. But that would mean absolutely no meals out, no movies, no overnight excursions to Ojai with the Girl Scouts.

Mr. Park’s cousin, whose tofu restaurant had become so successful that they opened three branches outside Koreatown, dutifully offered Mrs. Park a job waiting tables at his Alhambra outpost. He rescinded the offer as soon as she accepted, saying her English might not be good enough for his clientele—young American-born Koreans.

Mrs. Park talked to her girls about planting their own vegetables—eggplants, tomatoes, maybe even bok choy. Rosemary kept her dismay to herself and said she would take Driver’s Ed as soon as the course was offered at school. Mira, the truthteller, spelled it out to their mother: “This is America. You have to drive. And you have to have a job. Or else you might as well forget it.”

Her words bruised Mrs. Park. There was no way around it, she had to find a solution. For the first time in over a decade, she prayed.

Rosemary was eating a bowl of ramen and watching the news in the den. Not long after her father’s death, she began following a story she’d found personally appealing: a 15-year-old schoolgirl from New Jersey had gone missing. Five weeks later, the saga was still unfolding.

The story gripped her because this was the first time in her memory that the news media had ever picked up on a missing-teenager story where the girl wasn’t blond and blue-eyed. This time, she was a silky Eurasian Rosemary’s own age, a scholastic all-rounder who was in the Girl Scouts as well as her school’s math decathlon team. She went to a chichi girls’ school. Her father was a therapist and her mother was a professor at one of those picture-perfect Seven Sisters colleges that Rosemary dreamed of attending.

She felt a surge of abstract pride whenever pictures of the missing girl flashed on the screen. She liked the fact that there was rarely any mention of the girl’s ethnicity, except on the Fox News network where she was continually misdescribed as “Japanese teenager Brittany Ann Yamasato.”

The Yamasato family was holding a “live” news conference just then. While the girl’s father wept in the background, the mother, a tall brunette who resembled the actress Sigourney Weaver, announced gravely that FBI agents had finally broken into her daughter’s computer and found that she’d been communicating via AOL Instant Messenger with a sophomore from a West Coast university. From the salvaged message fragments, the authorities had reason to believe that Brittany had run away with this boy, after a series of coffee shop rendezvous. As if on cue, the mother broke down, pleading for any leads surrounding the young man who went by the name Paul. Sobbing, she confessed that she and her husband had “no idea” that their daughter had been “so unhappy.” When the news conference ended, CNN brought on a dour panel of educators to pontificate dryly on Alienation in the Honor Roll League.

Mrs. Park walked into the den and clicked off the TV.


Then she walked over to the windows and shut them, muffling the rock music pounding from the Mystery Boom Box.

“Ma! What’re you doing? I finished my homework!”

Mrs. Park sat herself down on the sofa, and stared at her calloused hands.

“Baby, today I clean closet, I find something was your Dad’s.”

“Was it money? . . . A gun?”

“It is paper . . .” Mrs. Park looked up at Rosemary, smiling, but her eyes brimmed with tears. “He write many story! But was secret. He never tell me! I not know!”

“Really? Dad was a writer? Since when?”

“I not know.”

“Can I see them? Where are they?”

“They still in closet.”

“Well, did you read them? Are they any good?”

“I not know.”

“What do you mean? Didn’t you read them?”

“No. They in English.”

Mrs. Park placed the stack of stories on Rosemary’s desk. They were hand-written on letterhead from All-Friends Worship and numbered in total about sixty pages. She ordered a Domino’s pizza (Hawaiian, busting the week’s budget) and made hot cocoa in preparation for the girls’ reading.

There was a lightness in Mrs. Park’s step but the girls had a sick feeling about the stories when they spotted titles like “The Dancing Banana Woman” and “Child Toucher.”

“We make book to sell, yes?” Mrs. Park backed out of Rosemary’s room, nodding and bowing like an innkeeper in an old samurai flick. Once the door was closed, the girls looked at each other and made faces.

They divided the stories into roughly two equal piles and started reading, quickly trading the pages they’d finished. Their father’s handwriting was neat and square, and he rarely made any corrections.

The story “Cheater Man” began: The lawyer Harvey Finkelstein was down to his last pack of cigarettes when he remembered his dear old father. It had been over a year since he had paid the old boy a visit. Perhaps Father would be dying soon and he would will the entire lot of his remaining wealth to me, thought Harvey. As he approached his father’s mansion, he was surprised and delighted to see the undertaker’s van parked in front of the house . . .

The Harvey Finkelstein character was forever saying things like, “Another day, another dollar!” and always seemed to have a pastrami sandwich or bagel stuffed into his pocket. As the story went on, Harvey got mixed up with heroin smugglers who lived in peach-colored condos facing the water. Mr. Park’s gangster underworld sounded like something dreamed up by a child after Adderall and Vice City. At the end of ten pages, all the characters perished in a terrorist attack on Miami Beach.

“Wow,” said Rosemary, passing the pages to her sister. “You certainly can’t accuse him of being formulaic.”

“Wait till you read this one,” Mira said. “It’s almost avant-garde.” She handed over the story “Child Toucher.”

Rosemary’s eyes widened. She read, “‘In fact, he scoffed at people who were occasionally hauled into court for acts of peepism . . .’ Peepism?” She cast the story aside and squealed. And Mira squealed, too, for good measure.

The girls could have stopped here but there was something morbidly enticing about reading such bizarrely bad writing—by somebody so close to them, and so dead.

“The Dancing Banana Woman” the girls saved for last because of its title. It had to be savored. They read this one out loud together: Venus Washington loves to dance cha-cha. Never mind that she is not terribly good at it and woe betide the man or woman who is silly enough to tell her the truth. She is cushioned by false praise from her dancehall partners, and the adoration of her husband Leroy, who brings a new dimension to the word “wimp” . . .

The girls groaned, but read on all the same. There were questionable spots of fluidity: The wrinkles on her thighs which used to dissipate after an afternoon at the spa now seemed reluctant to desert her and Leroy moved at a pace thought not possible for someone as corpulent as he. They pointed out sentences like these to each other with mounting suspicion that he might have plagiarized them. Rosemary, in particular, found it hard to picture her white-haired father sitting at his desk, writing the final line of the story: As he lived, so he died, in the most fitting manner and in the most appropriate place—in a brothel.

“This feels like the first one he wrote,” said Rosemary. “It’s got a beginning, middle and end. Like, structure. Before he felt confident enough to break free and, like”—her fingers crooked into scare quotes—“experiment.”

“Isn’t it weird that Dad wrote all this stuff and yet he wouldn’t let us read Harry Potter because it’s got wizards?”

“He was always a hypocrite.”

As they gathered up the pages, they wondered why the story was called “The Dancing Banana Woman.” Bananas did not figure in the least, except perhaps as a crude sexual metaphor. Then Rosemary’s cheeks burned with mortal embarrassment. It hit her—Venus Washington was African American.

“We have to burn these,” she whispered. “We can’t ever let anyone see them.”

They stared at the papers on Rosemary’s pink coverlet, chilled with the awareness that these were their father’s most personal items of legacy.

“If this was how he saw the world, no wonder he was so unhappy,” Rosemary said.

“Hot damn!” Mira exclaimed.

“Hot damn,” Rosemary echoed.

Rosemary watched her mother sink deeper into the sofa.

“I’m sorry, Ma. But they’re, like, slightly disappointing.”

“Don’t backpedal, Stinky,” Mira cut in. She plopped herself down on the sofa and grabbed her mother’s arm. “Ma, the truth is they’re truly, deeply bad. He really shouldn’t have bothered. I mean, honestly, man.”

Mrs. Park gripped the pile of stories to her chest, not saying a word.

Mira sighed dramatically. “Look, if you can’t, like, face up to reality, then I don’t know what else to say to you!” She stomped to her room and slammed the door. A second later, her head popped out to glower at her sister. “Rosie, tell her! She obviously doesn’t believe me. Don’t be a freakin’ two-face, alright?” The door banged shut again.

Mrs. Park was staring at a stain on the carpet three feet away. Rosemary reached for her mother’s arm but her mother pulled away. “Ma . . .”

Mrs. Park got up and headed to the front door with the stories. She kicked off her “inside” slippers and shoved her sullen feet into her “outside” slippers (which were the same exact slippers except not stained and frayed).

“Where are you going, Ma?”

“You only child, you not know anything!”

“Ma, we can’t let—”

But the door slammed shut.

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