New California Fiction : COLD HEARTED

His father had disappeared. Opened the freezer, pulled out two steaks and was gone. His mother had said so. A woman incapable of lies. Driving south across the Sound, Lawrence Lung remembered how Genius used to run his seashell-thick thumbnail along the plastic wrap that covered the supermarket steaks, tracing the T-shaped bones. "Best money can buy," he would say. A father imparting the facts of life to his son. So when his mother called him, the youngest of four, the only boy and the closest to home, the fact of the steaks did not faze him. What did though was the suit. She said he was wearing his suit. And where could he be going in his suit, she wanted to know? It was the only one he owned, a decades-old, double-breasted number straight off the set of "The Untouchables," with lapels as broad as shark fins, raspberry and navy pin-stripes on dark-gray wool cloth. There were the photos of Genius, taken in his early days in the U.S.: suit, white hat, cigarette, a mischievous light in his eyes. This was the man he sent overseas to the wife who would follow him from Hong Kong. He wore it on special occasions, weddings, banquets, funerals, the day Lawrence was born. He seemed taller in the suit, more substantial, even though he had obviously bought it a size or two too big, expecting to grow into the wide shoulders and waist, the long sleeves and pant legs, and from an early age Lawrence knew it would one day be his by default, the three sisters posing no competition. It was his inheritance, and that was just fine, he thought, as long as it did not come with the man inside.

AS SOON AS LAWRENCE ARRIVED, HE WENT STRAIGHT FOR THE REFRIGERATORS. It was his habit, how it was to be home. One refrigerator, then the next, opening the doors and looking, but knowing there was nothing in there he'd want to eat. As his mother repeated her story of the vanishing husband, the very same one she had told him, almost to the word, over the phone, he took shelter in the machines, absorbed by their contents, moving busily back and forth between these obese twins, set side by side, one's motor whirring on, then the other's. On a good day, if he was lucky, he might find a bottle of Coke among the paper bags of oranges, greens and roots; the bundles of medicinal herbs, twigs, bark, berries and what looked like worms bound with pink cellophane ribbon; the see-through boxes of black mushrooms and funky salted fish; wrappers of duck sausage and waxy pork bellies; takeout cartons with scraps of roast pig, roast liver, roast ribs; jars of oysters, shrimp, wood ears, lily buds; and dishes and bowls, of metal and porcelain, stacked one on top of the other, holding leftovers that had been reheated and re-served so many times not a trace of nutrients or flavor lingered in their pale cells. It was barefoot food, food eaten with sticks, under harvest moons. Rinse off the maggots, slice and steam. It was squatting in still water food, water snake around your ankle food. Pole across your shoulders, hoofs in the house food.

It was among the embarrassments of his youth. Thanks to his oldest sister Lucy, the family flirted occasionally with real food. What real people ate. With forks and knives, your own plate, your own portions, no more dipping into the communal soup bowl. Food from boxes and cans. The best were Swanson TV dinners. Meatloaf, Salisbury steak. He was convinced Salisbury steak was served in the White House every night. Meat in one compartment, vegetable medley in another, apple crisp next door. What a concept! Everything had its own house or its own room. That was how real people lived. By the time Lawrence was 11, he had cooked his first meal: roast beef, Green Giant canned corn, Betty Crocker instant mashed potatoes, Pillsbury Poppin' Fresh Rolls. Call it the march of generations.

They hadn't been a family of big eaters. Lily and Patty pecked. Lucy consistently left half her rice. Lawrence and his parents were the family jaws, though since his operation his father had slacked off from his usual two-bowl pace. Consider this then: As the household was then constituted, there was a three-to-two diner-to-refrigerator ratio.

Lawrence was partly responsible for the excess. He had helped his father bring the second refrigerator home. It happened one New Year's Eve. Lawrence returned from school to find his sisters already pressed into service of the New Year, scrubbing and dusting and vacuuming every inch of the laundry for that clean start, just as they would for the same reason wash their feet and hair later that night. In the kitchen, his mother was frying the New Year's fish, a porgy for the ancestors, while his father sat like an ancestor himself, stolid, in a nimbus of smoke, his hand serving his Lucky Strikes up to his lips, the cigarette like a thick stick of incense, the action like a prayer to his own spirit.

"Where have you been?" his father asked, pouring a cup of hot water into a bowl of broken saltines and evaporated milk. He had been awaiting his return and motioned for Lawrence to eat.

When he finished, they went out to the back yard, the parking lot, and Pop handed the keys to the family car. Pop did not drive and Lawrence only had a learner's permit. Lawrence turned the key, the engine churned, started and stalled. Ma stuck her head out the metal door, the expression on her face a hybrid of hurt and confusion, but before she could utter a word the engine turned over, and Lawrence gave her the gas. She roared at Ma, and Pop yanked down on the bill of his orange hunting cap and tapped the gearshift, signaling Lawrence to go.

Lawrence was a good driver even without a license. He liked the idea that he and his father might get into trouble together. Bad boys. He didn't see how he could lose: "He made me do it, officer," he would say, his finger like a gun at the earflap on Pop's cap. And now he got to drive without the encumbrance of his nervous driver's ed teacher or his bossy sisters. For the briefest instant, Lawrence wondered why his father had not enlisted one of his sisters, and in that way kept things legal, instead of waiting for him to come home from school. But hadn't Pop always waited for Lawrence? Waited for a son as his wife delivered girl after girl after girl; waited for the son to mature into a second pair of hands to help him with his chores; waited for him to turn into a set of wheels. He knew that that was all there was to it. He knew that he wasn't singled out as someone special, someone necessary. That his father simply hated to ask anything of the girls.

Lawrence played with the radio dial, and he was pleased, impressed even, by how adept he was at the maneuver. He switched on the heater, the blower on high, then low, and tried the wipers and upped the volume on the radio. When somebody honked, he honked back; long blasts, as if to say, "You're welcome. I like the way you drive too!" After the rush of that first honk, he clutched the steering wheel at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions and braced for his father's fierce bark or flying hand or both. But there was no reprimand, no thwack to the back of his head. For a split second, he felt cheated. He glanced over at Pop. He was sitting on the edge of the vinyl seat, gripping the dash with both hands, his body so rigid, one high-pitched screech and he'd shatter like glass. It was then Lawrence realized that in the car the rules that governed their life together had changed. Their common ground had shifted, a tremor enough to make you stop and re-evaluate your days. As illegal as he was in the car, it looked far worse for his father. Whatever advantage Pop might have claimed by virtue of his age he had forfeited when he slid in next to Lawrence and told him to go.

Then he told him to stop. They were in the middle of a tree-lined street of brick houses and, up ahead at the intersection, businesses, including a laundry run by a family friend. Lawrence eased off the brake, letting the car roll. It only stood to reason that "stop" meant at the corner. "Stop," Pop said. "We've arrived." "What do you mean? Arrived where?"

Pop looked over his shoulder, out the rear window, and Lawrence put the car in reverse, driving to meet his father's gaze. "We've arrived," Pop said excitedly, once, twice. He bounded from the car, circled past the front end, crossed the street. Lawrence had never seen him so frisky. There on the curb he grabbed the handle of a discarded refrigerator, as if he were shaking its hand.

It was colder outside than it could ever be inside a refrigerator. "How do you like it?" his father asked.

Lawrence had never thought of a refrigerator as something you liked. It was just there, like your arms or your teeth. He shrugged.

"I won it," Pop said. "It's all mine."

Lawrence wasn't sure, but he thought he heard bragging in Pop's voice. And why shouldn't he brag, he reasoned, a refrigerator is, if nothing else, impressive for its size. This one was an old Frigidaire with rounded corners like a bar of soap and a dent where its heart would be if this were the body of a man. Then he quickly recognized that this particular refrigerator was no prize from "Let's Make a Deal." What had he won but hundreds of pounds of garbage, a scrap-metal dealer's dream.

His father removed a homemade dolly from the trunk of the car. Double-thick plywood and black supermarket carriage wheels. Then a length of coarse rope. "Two are always better than one," Pop said. "Has to be that way, except maybe in the case of children." He was pleased with himself, making a joke at someone else's expense, as the cigar-smoking men in tuxedos did on television. Then he said in English, "I have two kit, I feed two mouth. I have four kit, I feed four mouth. I have two refrigerator, we have more food to eat. Hey, goong hee faht toy. " He laughed. "This way New Year start off in very good style." Snow started falling, large heavy flakes. Lawrence and his father inched the refrigerator off the curb and onto the dolly positioned in the gutter, the icy snow acting as a lubricant. "Does this thing work?" Lawrence asked.

"It has to work," he said. "It's all mine now! Good machine better than money. Money you spend; no more; all gone. Paper turn into air. But a machine like this refrigerator is different. If I keep it full up, it always give you plenty good food to eat."

Following his father's directions, Lawrence backed the car inches shy of the Frigidaire. Pop lashed the refrigerator to the dolly and then to the car's bumper, then twined a draped bedsheet over it. "Chinese people don't like to show off," his father said, addressing the look of disapprobation Lawrence wore. "We don't want to call attention to ourselves. I don't want people to say, 'Oh, look at that big shot, he must have won that nice refrigerator.' " Even from his 16-year-old perspective, Lawrence was dubious about his father's scheme.

Such an opinion was fully consistent with others he held about whatever his father did or whatever he put his mind to doing. Pop's intentions and deeds arrived in Lawrence's brain like the sight of a man who tips his hat and reveals a head of blue hair: The man is a whole human being, bearing all the requisite parts, but at the same time everything about him feels wrong, patently untrustworthy.

Lawrence put the car in drive. The tug at the rear made him feel suddenly important, heroic. The enormous weight, the mystery beneath the white sheet, his father's card winnings and how he would not brag on it to the world, the big snow and hard wind, the wipers barely keeping pace with the storm, the wheels' flimsy contact with the road. His father was smoking, more relaxed now, and when his son reached for a cigarette, fully expecting his hand to be slapped away, Pop tilted the package to facilitate the maneuver.

"One time," his father said, flicking his steel lighter in his son's direction, as if the Lucky were a cigar in celebration of the birth of a son, the sheet-swathed baby riding in back.

Then, when Lawrence turned his head to catch the light, when his eyes momentarily left the road, when he sucked in the first big smoke and coughed into his hand, the traffic light changed from yellow to red without his noticing, and the snow-slick road itself seemed to move. He honked his horn and slammed on the brakes in this winter world with its white cars and white roads and white headlight beams. All he could see in his panic was the black word " STOP! " like soot stamped on his mind's eye, and all he could feel was shame building like a fire under his collar, a heat as mean as hardware on a burning door, and all around him he could smell it: the tobacco, the metal, the vinyl, the heater, the sudden aging of the man and the boy within the compartment.

Cars everywhere were honking. Theirs had skidded nearly perpendicular to the traffic flow. He could have killed them both, they came that close to crashing. And before his heart stopped racing and the pulse in his temples calmed, once that slow wave of relief and gratitude had passed, he saw how the worst could have happened, and how he couldn't even blame Pop for it.

When he started the car again, he felt a lightness. A release--your opponent in a tug-of-war letting go. In the rearview mirror, the Frigidaire was free between lanes of traffic. A snowman adrift on wheels. A car swerved to avoid it. The car's driver sped up until their cars were rolling side by side, and the driver honked his horn impatiently, and Lawrence motioned for Pop to lower his window. The driver and his buddy stared into their car, two men with blue eyes who seemed to own the road, and the driver sneered, "Oh, it's just some crazy chinks." As they laughed at his father (they couldn't have been laughing at Lawrence), Lawrence came to the quick conclusion that these two thugs were right--there was something unerringly Chinese about hauling this useless machine, a won-at-cards slant-eyed prize, a garbage-picker special tethered to the car like Gregory Peck on the back of the Great White Whale; he could not imagine his friends and their dads doing likewise in their Electras or Continentals. Then, as the other car peeled away in the slickness, his father stuck his orange-hunting-capped head out the window, braced himself with his Lucky Strikes hand, shouted "Fuck you!" without a trace of accent and flipped them off with his free hand, the right one, the one that lit matches and in anger struck the blows. It was all too much for Lawrence. If Pop had had a hold of that car, he would have torn loose the hood, tossed the engine into their laps. Instead, he had a hold of Lawrence, his hot words ripping a hole in his chest as fresh and smoky as the one those men had just shot through his boy soul.

They parked and curbed the refrigerator. Pop told him to telephone one of his road-legal sisters. He brought out a palmful of change and let Lawrence pick his own coins for the call. This was unexpected, something new, dipping into his father's personal till, like drawing blood, and he didn't flinch. Lawrence could smell the metal warmed by the heat of Pop's leg. Drawing twice, two nickels.

Through the storm Lawrence walked to a pay phone, called home, and when he returned his father was still standing beside the Frigidaire, both covered with snow. He wondered why he had not taken shelter inside the car but decided not to ask. He wanted to remember his father's imitation of a real man, the man with the dangerous voice, the man with a palm of silver.

They sat in the car. Lawrence suggested they wait at Uncle Law's place, Pop's friend's laundry up the block. Warm and steamy, fragrant with pressed cotton. Maybe even score a cup of hot tea. But Pop wouldn't bite. He had lost face, was in need of a face lift, his only son having failed him.

When Patty arrived, Pop stuffed a $5 bill in Lawrence's jacket and zipped the pocket. A surprise reward. Perhaps he wasn't so disappointed after all. Then his father and sister drove home. Lawrence was left guarding the refrigerator, and even as day darkened and cold cut crosswise against his cheeks, he did not, as his father before did not, stray from his post.

When Pop returned with the upholstery-man neighbor and his pickup truck, he said Lawrence was saw-saw for waiting outside by the refrigerator, rather than waiting in the car. "Did you think it was going to run away?" he asked. After a protracted struggle, they loaded the refrigerator onto the truck. As he was about to climb into the cab, his father grabbed Lawrence by his jacket sleeve. Pop would give thanks now, Lawrence thought, for a job well done, mission accomplished. Pin a metal on his chest, plant a kiss on his cheek, shake his hand firmly, tousle his hair. Robert Young and Fred MacMurray, slippered and piped, their depthless compassion and broad streaks of sanity, as white as their starched shirts. Right then, in the exhilarating moment of anticipation, the upholstery truck's idling motor was music, its blue burning oil perfume. But what Pop did was unzip Lawrence's pocket and filch the $5 bill--a tip for the upholstery man.

Later that night, after the New Year's Eve feast and the chores and the homework, when everyone was washing their feet before sleeping into the next year and all the sinks and pails were occupied, Pop filled his refrigerator's vegetable drawers with hot soapy water and rolled up his pants and plunged his blue-white feet in and bragged, "Who said it's good for nothing?" He had cleaned his prize with Comet cleanser, scrubbing away dirt as well as paint, and defended it against the girls' wisecracks, and by now had shed whatever diffidence he felt when he first introduced this newest member of the clan. Then he plugged the Frigidaire in and sat there, with the door open, soaking his feet, ostensibly wiping down its insides, using a rag and soapy water from the vegetable bin. No one could see his face but Lawrence was on to him. Cut off from the rest of the family, his father basked in the refrigerator's chilled air, its silvery vapors, its measly light's glow. What Lawrence saw in his father's gentle cleaning of each egg holder's deep dimple was kindness, and the pang Lawrence felt, like fingers fanning in his throat, was envy, and the motor's hum was a murmuring of love. And he wondered then if he'd ever be so brave as to love like that. A machine or the man.

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