Mi Jin Kim | Fiction
When Frank gets to work he’s told to run the vacuum. Everything in the Prince is carpeted—the foyer, the mailroom, the downstairs lobby, all the hallways on all fifteen floors. The management company replaces the carpet every now and then, but never changes the color from what it is now: chimney-smoke gray.
The short-term boarders who live in the Prince are hoppers, hopping on something day and night. They loiter in the halls and in the downstairs lobby, fidgeting, sticking their red fingers in the holes of their jeans. They are each of them immense and beautiful—even the skinny ones with the beginnings of meth face.
The tenants are men in their thirties and forties. They keep to themselves. They have jobs and friends and carry in bags of groceries. When they see Frank they give him a little wave with their keys. If they’re on the phone they’ll give him the same little wave, keys in hand, except they’ll just mouth it instead of saying it: Hey Frank.
Hey Frank, they say when they catch him in the elevator. How’s things?
He doesn’t know what to say when someone comes upon him while he’s thinking his thoughts when he’s working at the Prince so he says the same thing no matter what anyone says to him: Oh, good, thank you.
What’d you bring for your lunch today? That a sack lunch?
Oh, good, thank you, he says.
Frank is twenty-eight but looks older on account of his thinning hair, the deep lines around his bulbous nose. When he shaves he has to look at his skin up close, real close in the bathroom mirror. Where there used to be angry pustules now are hundreds of dilated pores, clustered together. All those holes, those open mouths in his skin: He doesn’t like looking at them. He’ll only look at his skin up close in the mirror when he shaves.
Frank does a good job with his duties at the Prince. He has no official title. He’s not a part of the custodial staff. He works under a guy named Mike. Mike looks like anybody named Mike who does odd jobs for an apartment hotel called the Prince. Work for me and you won’t hardly be working, Mike said on Frank’s first day on the job. Mike talks, and Frank listens hard. Two years ago Frank developed vertigo after getting beat up so bad he got his jaw wired shut for six weeks. Sometimes he walks into a thought and gets stuck in it. He can’t pick up soft voices in his left ear. Mike has a soft voice, so Frank listens hard. His first day on the job, Mike told him, This is a big ass building. A lot of tenants, a lot of idiots. A mess of fucking complaints day in, day out. Frank heard his blood pounding in one ear—that day, he couldn’t even tell which ear was doing it. He’s all fucked up inside, even though it’s been years since those bangers beat him up. They kicked his stomach so hard Frank could taste shit and blood in his mouth.
You keep your head down, you focus on the job, you’ll be all right, Mike said. Your brother couldn’t recommend you any higher. He told me to take care of you. I guess you need it. Mike pays Frank every other Friday. Mike pays him in cash.
It’s a quiet morning. Frank finishes up on the penthouse level and rolls the vacuum all the way down to the basement, where Mike keeps an office by the backup generator. Frank has no office of his own, only a dented-in locker bolted to the wall. Frank keeps his baseball cap and his lunch inside the locker. He thinks about his lunch while he rolls the vacuum to its usual corner, right by the generator. He covers the Hoover with a gray tarp and looks at his locker. He has brought a Yoshinoya beef bowl he bought last night which he’ll eat cold. He eats his lunches on the steps outside.
Frank looks at his watch. He goes into Mike’s office. Mike is looking at the feed from the security cameras. Whenever Mike looks at anything important he wears large, gold-rimmed eyeglasses that hide his black eyebrows. Mike is less Mike with his glasses on. Frank stares hard, trying to reconcile not-Mike and the Mike he knows.
“Can I go to lunch?” Frank asks.
Mike takes off his glasses and turns in his seat to look at the clock. “Yeah, take an hour,” Mike says in his soft voice. It’s drizzling outside. Frank stands outside getting wet until a tenant sees him. The tenant is holding two tote bags from Whole Foods. They’re the color of raisins.
“Hey, Frank,” the tenant says. “We’re finally getting some rain. Neat, huh?”
“Yeah, ok,” Frank says, staring down at his shoes.
The tenant looks at him a moment. “Listen, buddy, could you get the door?”
Frank walks back to the Prince and holds open the door.
“Why don’t you come in?” the tenant says. “It’s supposed to rain all day. Yeah, buddy, it’s not a good idea to eat outside. Of all the days, right, Frank? When you’ve got your Yoshinoya?”
Frank takes his lunch and uses the emergency stairwell to get to a lounge on the seventh floor. It’s quiet here in the mornings but Frank avoids it in the afternoons since that’s when the tenants start coming home from work.
In the corner are a desk and chair that he likes to use. Nearby is a shelf of old magazines. Most of the subscriptions ended in 2004 or the year before. The pages are curled because the pipes burst in here once. Frank saved all the magazines, drying them one by one over the radiator. While he eats he looks at National Geographic. The snow in the photographs looks like ice cream. Frank runs the tip of his finger along the mountains, stops where the chocolate cookie is peeking through the vanilla. He can’t remember the taste of other kinds of ice cream. He thinks hard about the taste of things he can’t remember anymore. Mint chocolate, peanut butter, daiquiri. Daiquiri! he thinks. He remembers what he used to think of it, but can’t recall the taste on his tongue: icy; green; refreshing. He knows it, and doesn’t. Suddenly the room feels less empty; the walls feel closer.
Frank looks up and sees an old man with a soft peak of foamy white hair waving at him from the lounge door.
“Am I interrupting lunch?” says Desiderio.
Frank stands, unsure of what to do. Desiderio is one of the oldest tenants at the Prince. He talks to Frank as though they are great friends. Frank never knows what to do when this happens.
“Thought I might take a walk today. Put on my hat. Then I opened up the window and there it was,” Desiderio says in that unhurried, watery way that belongs to the very old. “Rain.”
On his second day working at the Prince Mike told him to be attentive to the older tenants. Some have been around since the late eighties. Desiderio has been here forever. That’s what Mike told him on his second day: Desiderio’s been here, oh, forever. Maybe even before the building was up.
“Don’t mind me,” Desiderio says. He sits on one of the club chairs in the center of the lounge.
It rains harder outside. The lounge grows dark.
“Oh, that’s nice,” says Desiderio, blinking up at the pendant lights when Frank turns them on.
Frank returns to the desk and sits down with his hands folded in his lap. Desiderio wipes at his face with a silk pocket handkerchief.
Frank concentrates hard on the humming from the lights overhead. It thrums in his ears.
A tenant with a rat-sized dog passes by in the hall. He pops his head in. “How are you, Desi? Been a while since I’ve seen you up here.”
“Oh,” Desiderio says, nodding, still wiping his brown face, “oh, so good. I’m exceptional.” He winks at Frank.
The tenant waves goodbye.
“Don’t get caught in that rain,” Desiderio calls after him, “and ruin that good hair. Get lice if you get caught in the rain.”
“Bye, Desi,” the tenant calls back.
Desiderio eyes the assortment of items on Frank’s desk. “How was lunch, Frankie?”
Frank tells him about the beef bowl he has just finished.
Desiderio waves away his words. “Junk food. Don’t you know that beef’s half newspaper?”
“It tastes good,” says Frank.
“I’ve developed a thirst,” says Desiderio suddenly.
Frank goes to the cooler and brings back a wax-coated cup of silvery water.
Desiderio points at the wax cup with a finger like a dehydrated breakfast sausage. “That for me? You’re too kind, too kind.”
Frank sits down at his desk and stares at the brown bits of meat and rice left in his Yoshinoya bowl.
“Santé,” says Desiderio, raising his cup. Frank looks at him a moment before he raises his own paper cup. “You’ve got years ahead of you, Frankie. Years and years and years.”
Frank takes the Blue Line home. It’s a nice ride with lots to look at outside until the moment the line passes San Pedro. The streets get grimier. Gray warehouses, gray roads, gray people. Here, men come on board. Men without backpacks or grocery bags—so, not men off work and going home: these men will go anywhere. They wear beaters and lean against the poles and partitions. These men come on board and the nice people have gotten off somewhere else.
Across the way an old woman, one of the few who haven’t gotten off, looks at herself in a compact mirror. With a shaky hand she reapplies her lipstick. The waxy smell carries over to Frank. He watches her long after her mirror and lipstick have been put away. A man in a beater comes over to sit next to Frankie.
“You like them old, daddy?”
Frank looks away, out the window, but the plastic catches the man’s reflection: shaved head, black goatee, eyes darting and manic.
“You’re a wild ride, man. But let me know something, daddy, help me out. What do you do when you’re down there and the clam’s been shut so long you’ve got to—”
Frank stands up. “It’s my stop.”
“Go for it, daddy.”
Frank has to hug the partition to get out of the seats without touching the man in the beater. The man makes kissing noises at him. The conductor’s garbled voice comes on over the speakers and the doors open.
It rains on Frank while he walks home. At his front door he shakes out his jacket. He makes the kissing noises at himself. Men have made those noises at him before but he can’t place when.
The next day it rains again.
“Frankie, you are an odd bird,” says Desiderio. He winks. “Like me.”
The old man’s gaze takes in the lounge.
“Used to be a club room, back in my day,” says Desiderio. He watches Frank for a reaction. “There was a whole gang of us here. We used to call ourselves the Doctors. We were all medical school dropouts. I was the only dentist to flunk out—officially kicked out on my rear by the Barstow School—in the group. The fellows called me Dentyne, or Molar. It was a gag, but also out of affection. All the fellows made up pet names for one another. My best fellow here was a boy named Jackie—he’d come all the way from Tennessee—but my pet name for him was Chico. I had a baby brother we called Chico. He got trampled by a mad horse. Got his ribs smashed in. I held on to his tiny pretty baby hand when he went up to the angels. A doll’s hand it was. Perfect. With smallness comes perfection, you know that, don’t you, Frankie? I can’t see his face anymore. Blue eyes, maybe, like mine. I don’t know.” The old man wrings his hands.
Frank finishes his sandwich. Mike gave him the sandwich because Frank forgot to bring his lunch. Frank never forgets to bring his lunch. When Frank finished watering all the plants on all fifteen floors Mike said, Take an hour, and Frank went to his locker and just stood there staring into the empty space because he hadn’t brought anything. It happens, Mike said, but he looked at Frank and his eyes were soft.
Tuna fish: Frank rolls the words around in his head. The bittersweet taste of mayonnaise and tinned fish is thick on his tongue. He scrapes his front teeth across it, front to back, front to back, and thinks: Tuna fish.
“Jackie—I called him Chico—loved this room.” Desiderio shifts in his seat and rests his brown face in his hand. “Played his trumpet in here while the fellows played cards or whatever we did in those days. Smoking and drinking up a storm, I guess.”
Frank takes out a white envelope from his front pocket on which is written: WEDNESDAY. There are two pills inside. He swallows them with a cupful of warm water. He looks out at the sky, at the boneyard of gnats on the windowsill. His thoughts flatten out like spilled glue. He feels slow and stupid. He’s all fucked up inside, so his kidneys can’t remove certain stuff from his blood on account of those bangers stomping on his guts. He slumps in his chair.
“Sometimes, in the night, I’d find Chico here. He’d prop the window open with his trumpet case and look out at the rain, or whatever it was he was seeing. I’d look at him and want to touch his hair—it was red-gold, like nobody’s hair I’d ever seen before. I used to think how nobody has hair like that here, not unless they come all the way from Tennessee. What a marvel. But Jackie—Chico—would get so shy about the fellows touching him.”
Frank thinks about asking Mike if he can go home early today. He has never needed to go home early. But his body grows cold and he feels so sleepy he can’t keep his eyes open. He opens his eyes wide and listens hard. He can’t hear so well out of his left ear, and the old man’s voice is so soft, the lights in the room so yellow, so warm.
Frank shuts his eyes for a moment, briefly, then opens them again to find Desiderio struggling to rise out of his chair. “Will you help me, Frankie?”
That’s one of Frank’s duties at the Prince, helping people back into their rooms. “Yeah, ok,” Frank says and gets up. The blood rushes into his head and he sees stars.
Desiderio grips Frank’s hand. To Frank’s surprise the old man’s hand is warm—hot, even. “I’ve heard stories about you, Mr. Frank,” Desiderio says, his eyes shining. “Some mad, mad, mad stories. But I,” he says, pointing at his caved-in chest with that dried-up sausage of a finger, “I know how to keep my mouth shut.”
“Okay,” Frank says.
“That’s how come I know you and I are alike, Frankie. Chico, though, no, Chico was different. He married a girl and had babies and went back to school. Good on Chico. Figuring it all out. Not like us, eh, Frankie?” Desiderio holds onto Frank as they walk out of the lounge together.
Frank doesn’t like hot hands. When Desiderio’s door shuts behind him Frank wipes down his palms on his shirt.
The next day, on his lunch break, Frank walks to KFC. The rain has stopped but the skies are gray. There are cafés and restaurants all around the Prince, a Subway and a McDonald’s and a Persian-owned pizza place and a Korean barbecue restaurant and even a food court where you can eat in a huge cafeteria, surrounded by people. Frank wants to go to KFC. Their soda fountain has Mountain Dew.
On his walk over Frank has to keep his hands in his pockets so he doesn’t swing his arms and hit someone. He’s done it before. It’s not the hitting someone that bothers everybody; Frank never knows what to say, so he stands there, staring hard, and then the air changes and everyone’s eyes and mouths start doing different things.
At KFC he orders a Fill-Up Box and a large Mountain Dew and he waits right at the counter until his order comes out. The girls behind the counter pull their visors down low and roll their eyes at one another from under the bills.
“Order sixty-three,” a cashier squawks. “That you?”
Frank counts out the things on the tray the girl’s handing to him. Box of peppered chicken tenders and a Styrofoam bowl of mashed potatoes with almond-brown gravy clouding the plastic lid and a yellow biscuit in a wax-coated sleeve. The girl sets down a spork.
“You want sauce?”
“What kind of sauce do you want?”
Frank looks at her. The girl glances behind her at her coworkers. They mouth, Oh my god.
“You want hot sauce?”
“Okay,” Frank says.
Frank counts out the things on the tray. Everything’s there so he takes it to a corner table and lets the world settle down around him before he starts in on his biscuit.
The view outside the window of KFC is one of his favorites. People stream out of the Bank of America across the way, men and women in gray business suits and black miniskirts. They flow down the steps and merge with the lunch crowd on the street. Kids skate past. Lavender-throated pigeons Egyptian-walk between everyone’s feet. So many cars and buses and trucks and the gray clouds low in the sky. KFC smells like chicken fat inside and the city smells good too when he finishes his lunch and walks outside. All those exhaust fumes and people, the clean rubber cement smell of them: He breathes it in, sucks it in through his open mouth.
At the end of the day Mike takes off his glasses and says, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Frank.”
On his walk home from the rail station he gets that hot blue feeling again, the sensation of being home without having yet arrived. He remembers the way he used to feel when he’d get home after school and his dad would call out from the den, “That you, Frank?” His dad had only a couple of years left then. He had to lie there alone in the den all day, waiting on Frank to come home. “That you, Frank?” he’d call out as soon as he heard someone at the front door.
There’s nothing in the world like knowing that someone’s waiting all day for you to come back, missing you and wondering about you, and then the feeling that comes over you when you’re almost at the house—then the good, warm pleasure that fills you up as you’re letting yourself in. Then you’re back, and he calls out to you, and you go to him and he sees you, and he can stop waiting for you.
Frank takes the basement stairs and exits out onto Wilshire. On the Blue Line a man with a black goatee, different from the one who wanted to kiss him but not at all different, sits across from Frank but looks past him. The car empties out just before San Pedro. The man pulls his blue Dodgers cap down low and takes a nap. Looking at him makes Frank sleepy too. He dozes and wakes up in a crowded car. A woman is sitting beside him, clutching two bulging black trash bags. At his stop lots of people get off, which is unusual. Usually at this time workers leaving work get on the rail as Frank steps off. Today, lots of people walk behind Frank. He walks with them all the way to the intersection on 58th and Slauson, his shoulders bumping their shoulders, their purses swinging against his thighs. He walks with them and they move together and he looks at their profiles and at their necks and shoulder blades and nobody looks back or over at him. One woman is on the phone. When she laughs, Frank smiles.
Across the street, down Slauson, he’s alone again. He turns to look for the crowd but everyone has gone a different way. He watches as the woman on the phone disappears into a Winchell’s Donuts. Frank watches the door until someone jostles him. It’s a man in a Dodgers baseball cap. He’s wearing a beater, which shows off a vaccine scar on his left shoulder.
“Hey, you got a phone?”
Frank glances over at him.
“Hey, you got a phone? I need to call my girl to let her know I got off at the wrong stop.”
The station is behind them and around the block. Frank doesn’t know how to tell him that he should go back to the rail station so he doesn’t.
“Hey, I need to make a call. You got a phone? Let me see your phone.”
“I don’t have one,” Frank says, finally.
The man licks his upper lip, which is a different shade of red than his fat lower lip. “I want to call my girl. I got off at the wrong stop. Hey, where’s your house? You live close?” Frank walks and the man walks alongside him. Cars pass but they are alone in a way Frank has known before. The cars will not stop. No one is there inside those things; there is no one behind the windshields. Out here, where Frank is, he is alone with the man in his beater. Out here there are always men in beaters, waiting for Frank.
Down the street, they stop at a blue bungalow that is not Frank’s house.
“You live here?”
“Yeah,” Frank says.
The man looks it over. He hitches up his jeans. “Let me in. I want to use your phone.”
“Okay,” Frank says.
They let themselves in through the fence.
“This your house?”
“Yeah,” Frank says. “But I go around the back.” He points at the side of the house. The man in the baseball cap follows him. There is a narrow space between the house and the neighbor’s fence, overgrown with weeds, where a child’s old mattress and bicycle and plastic dollhouse have been waiting for her to return.
Frank steps gingerly between the bicycle and dollhouse but the man in the baseball cap kicks them away. The bicycle topples over. The man’s pants are baggy. They’re caught—or the handles of the bicycle, and its chain, and its seat, are clutching at him. It buys Frank enough time to run to the backyard. He runs without looking behind him, runs without being afraid. The instinct to run has bled him even of that. He runs. A risky move if he’s fenced-in. He is, but the backyard fence has warped and sunken into the earth or someone has mangled it so that it is now not a barrier, a not-fence. He leaps over it. His knees knock into dry grass and an old tire. He risks a glance behind him. No one’s there, but Frank keeps running.
He runs all the way home.
Home is a windowless half-studio in a boarding house set up on the second floor of a sewing factory fenced in behind black metal bars to keep out the homeless who have set up camp on the street. Frank is let in by the small Korean man who sits on a folding chair behind the gate. He doubles as security and unloader, for when the shipments come in for the sewing factory.
“Hi,” the small Korean says, “Frank.” The man always pauses after his greetings and before saying Frank’s name.
“Hi, ok,” Frank says, stopping to look into the man’s face. It is a face difficult to understand, flat and red, with sharp black whiskers that grow out of the skin like metal shavings. Frank likes the man’s face, but doesn’t understand it.
Frank looks beyond the gate, out at the street where the homeless are shuffling back and forth between their tents. The man in the baseball cap has not followed him, but Frank waits for him anyway.
“Every day,” the Korean says, answering himself. “No short days, yeah?” He pauses. “Frank?”
At the sight of a homeless man in a dark baseball cap, Frank takes off running across the parking lot. He jogs into the factory but doesn’t go upstairs to the boarders’ rooms. It is noisy downstairs, bustling with Koreans and Latino workers. Sometimes it stays open all night and is still running when Frank comes downstairs to head out to work.
Tonight, Frank is glad to see their faces. Like the security guard’s, the Koreans are impossible to read for him and impossible to be comfortable around, but tonight he is glad of their company.
“Frank, are you okay?” they ask. They murmur to themselves. They sit him down at an empty sewing machine. It’s still warm to the touch. He tries to catch his breath. All of the Koreans gather to look at him. “Frank, what’s wrong?”
The owner, who is soft spoken and has a way of listening very carefully, comes out to look at Frank.
Frank tells them, because they’re waiting for him to talk, about the man in the baseball cap.
“Chased!” says the owner’s wife.
“It’s dangerous out there, yeah?” says the owner.
The others move away, go back to their sewing. The owner pulls up a chair. He makes a worried noise and rests his arms over his head. Frank looks into the man’s smooth pale face and relaxes. “Well, we’ll be here all night,” the owner says, “if you want some company.” He pats the space next to Frank’s hand.
Later when they turn on their second lamps, Frank does too. He looks over the machine, runs his hands over all the metal components which have gone cold to the touch. He plucks the thread out of the needle. Its eye is the smallest opening he has seen on anything, smaller even than the holes in his face.
“I can’t see the hole,” he says to no one. He leans his face in real close and marvels, once more, at its size.
A young Korean sitting at the next machine over has been working steadily and silently but now he takes a break. He curves his spine over the back of his plastic chair and stretches. “Are you trying to thread the
Frank nods, furrowing his brow, afraid that next will come a slurry of complicated instructions.
“There’s a little whatchamacallit,” the Korean says. “Open up the drawer. Should be right above your thighs.”
Inside Frank finds what looks like a guitar pick with a looped steel wire.
“Try it out. Once you’ve got threading down, the machine’s half yours.”
Frank tries it out. He tries until he gets the machine threaded again. When he steps on the paddle the needle bobs up and down. He does it too fast and the thread tangles inside the machine. He doesn’t ask about it this time. Frank just goes in and figures it out.
In his room upstairs, Frank lies in bed and thinks about his favorite seat on the Blue Line, right behind the partition. He thinks about the way the ride home changes when the seasons do—in late autumns he rides toward the sunset, in summer they speed toward blue sky. He thinks about all the evening rides ahead, the long walks home alone. He thinks about the Prince. All that carpet. Mike and his glasses, the way they change his face. He remembers, for a moment, his dad, who looks like Mike in his mind’s eye because Frank can’t remember his dad’s face anymore. This scares Frank, not knowing, not picturing his dad’s face in his mind’s eye and seeing Mike’s instead.
Frank closes his eyes and tries to see, thinks hard about his father the way he thinks about daiquiri ice cream. Icy, heavy-shouldered. Green, clean-shaven. Soft-spoken, eyeglasses for reading, old brown slippers after work, Life cereal for breakfast on Sundays. Sick and grown thin, later. Later. Frank remembers, remembers the long ago. He walks backward and remembers.
On the corner he quickens his steps because he sees the house. He lets himself in through the front door. He puts his skateboard away in the broom closet and hangs up his backpack on the coat hook because his brother doesn’t like him leaving a mess on the floor.
“Dad?” he says.
“That you, Frank?”
“Yeah, it’s me, Dad.”
He walks down the hall. Stops.
“Want some water, Dad?”
“Water sounds nice,” is the answer that drifts out of the den.
Frank fills up a glass of water and walks it back to his dad.
In the den: an open window letting in the late-afternoon breeze and long gray blinds that rattle when Frank comes in and a TV playing the Channel Nine news and boxes of No-Thaw apple juice cups in one corner and an I.V. hung up on a pole and in the middle of the room is a bed on wheels and in the bed the man who has been waiting all day for Frank to finally come home.
Mi Jin Kim is a Los Angeles native who currently lives and writes in Seoul, South Korea. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she was a recipient of the Henfield Prize and the Frederick Busch Prize. This is her first published story.Copenhagen, Denmark by Gunnar Ridderström