February brings us the aptly named short story "Snowmen" by Dickson Lam. But Lam's story is less about winter and more about belonging (or not) and the longing for an absent father.
-- Karissa Chen, Fiction & Poetry Editor
On the form for my preference of high school, I’d listed McAteer, a school across town, as my top choice. I knew little about it. I didn’t know about its selective arts program, a school within a school. I didn’t know many of its students were coming from neighborhoods at war with each other, that all the dudes in the school seemed to claim something: a turf, a dance crew, a graffiti crew, or that strange cult, ROTC. All I knew, and all I needed to know, was that practically no one from my middle school was going to McAteer, which meant no more dealing with kids coming up to me in the hallway telling me how phony I was, reminding me and anyone else around that I had backstabbed my best friend.
He was a white kid named Max, skinny, big ears, dark slick hair, always wore Chucks and baggy sweatpants. His friends became my friends. For every hour spent playing video games, we spent an hour playing sports. Didn’t matter which. None of us were particularly good at any, but that wasn't the point. He brought me to my first baseball game. He had an allowance and would break me off some money when we went to the arcades or the comic store. He’d order pay-per-view fights, and his mom would order pizza. He had the latest video game systems, one set up in his room, another in a loft. One night, as I left his house, I snuck one of his game cartridges in my pocket. He phoned later that night and banned me from his house until I confessed.
I can't say for certain that stealing from Max had nothing to do with his racist jokes, how he'd pull the corner of his eyes back, or his cracks about how I was broke because I lived in the projects, how my house was probably cockroach-infested, how I wore the same jeans every day. But none of that feels as honest as what I'd actually told myself: the universe owes you. I had to beg for the few games I had. Max had stacks. Enough that some games went unplayed for months, the cartridges trapped inside a dusty case. I wasn't stealing. I was liberating.
A few weeks later, I caved and came clean, but Max and I were done. He still let me over to his house, but he'd tell friends to keep an eye on me, not to leave me alone in any room. His mom wouldn't speak to me, wouldn't even look in my direction. Bye-bye pizza nights. His dog, a dachshund, would bark at me as she followed me to the bathroom.
At school, I tried to switch cliques, but I’d been blacklisted as a thief who couldn't be trusted. McAteer was my reset button. New school. New friends. New life. The challenge was my mother.
“You have to sign this at the bottom,” I said, shoving the form at her while she was washing dishes.
“Yi goh meih yeh?” she asked.
“This is where I'm going to school.” I pointed to the box labeled “First Choice.”
She leaned into the form and squinted. “I never heard of this school. Why doesn't it say Lowell?” Lowell was the only public high school in San Francisco that afforded her bragging rights, a feeder school to UC Berkeley and where my brother would be entering his senior year. If I were to get in as well, she'd do a victory lap in Chinatown, dragging me around the markets, the newsstand, the bakery, the herbal store, the bank, the takeout place with the fried chicken drumettes. She'd boast to whoever was behind the counter about her second Lowell son. Never mind the long line of grandmas behind us at the register, eyeing my mother like she was a freak for her long hair that ran down to her knees, for her heavy makeup, for her leopard-skin heels. This was a fish market not a runway. My mom would ignore these looks and chat with the cashier. She'd demonstrate her skills at Praising without Praising. “This son takes school too seriously. Just like his brother. They both go to Lowell. This one can't stop reading. Even takes his books with him to the bathroom. So strange.”
“Those are comic books!” I'd say but she wouldn't translate. She'd just pat my head like I was a silly kid.
A splash of water fell on the form. My mother was stuffing plates into the dish rack. “I don't have good enough grades for Lowell,” I said. “I've been telling you that for the longest.”
“How do you know if you don't apply? Cross that school out. Write Lowell.”
“Lowell has a different form. And the deadline was last week.”
“Mo gong dai wai.”
“Are you crazy!” She ripped off her dishwashing gloves and tossed them at the plaid wallpaper behind the sink.
“You don't understand how Lowell works. I didn't at first either, but the counselor broke it down for me. She showed me a table. No, not a physical table, like a chart. It tells you what kind of grades and test scores you need to get in.”
In the beginning of middle school, I'd bring home A's and B's, but my mother would say, “How come not 4.0 like your Goh Goh?” Lowell became a dead end, but I wasn't brazen enough to blow off school completely.
“I'm like a B student,” I said to my mother, “some C's thrown in, so maybe more of a B-. I wouldn't have had a shot.”
“You get A's.”
“They don't count sixth grade.” I decided to not make things more complicated by bringing up extra-curricular activities, and how I was lacking in this category as well. I played baritone in the school band, but it was hard to be proud of that. I'd started off on the trumpet like my brother but got demoted to the baritone. The music teacher grouped us with our fellow instrument players, arranging us in a row according to skill. She ranked me last among the baritones, fourth out of four. It was a comfortable position. Anything I did was a bonus.
“Tomorrow,” my mother said and clapped her hands, “we'll go down to the district office. Get this straightened out. Sure, sure.”
“Mom, it's over.” I tried to hand her a pen. “Here. Sign.”
She grabbed the cordless phone and stabbed it towards my face, nearly poking my cheek with the plastic antenna. “Call your Bah Ba,” she said. “Tell him you want to be a bum.”
I placed the phone on the kitchen table. I couldn't take her literally. She knew I didn't know my father's number, though it wasn't far from me, scribbled on the calendar above the washing machine. On occasion we did speak on the phone. He'd call and I'd play the role of my mother's secretary: Yeah, she's home. Hold on. No, she's not. I'll tell her you called. Did my mother really think my father would lecture me? We all understood Bah Ba was a simple man. Father: make money, send to wife. Mother: kids.
I chalked up Bah Ba's indifferent attitude to genetics, some absent-father gene that plagued Lams. I didn't know his family, but I imagined his brothers, his dad, his uncles, all these men living apart from their families, the Lams—a clan of distant fathers. It wasn't personal that Bah Ba was uninterested in me. He just wasn't capable of it. He was a victim of the Lam gene. I didn't follow the existence of this gene to its logical conclusion—I carried the gene myself.
“Lowell is all hype,” I said to my mom. “Colleges don't care what high school you went to.”
“Lum Goon Saang,” she called for my brother.
“What?” Goh Goh was sitting in the easy chair in the living room, next to the doorway a couple of feet from us.
“Tell your brother how stupid he is.”
“I've been trying to tell him his whole life.”
“So stupid. Didn't even apply.”
“He's not smart enough. He wouldn't have gotten in anyway.”
“Ga Jeh didn't apply,” I said to my mother. “How come you didn't make a fuss with her?” My sister was a sophomore at Lincoln High School, a distant second-best to Lowell.
“You know your sister is not that smart,” my mother said.
“I heard that,” Ga Jeh shouted from her room.
“You know what I mean. You never had honor classes.”
My sister marched into the kitchen holding a glass with a Hello Kitty straw. Her hair was permed, and it stretched high above her forehead, curling at the ends like a tidal wave ripping over her head. She had that constipated face look of hers. That look she'd only have when talking to us. Get her on the phone with a friend, and she'd sound like a cheery customer service rep. “Move,” she said to me.
I stepped aside. “Tell her, Ga Jeh. You don't need Lowell to go to college.”
My sister opened the fridge and grabbed a jug of orange juice. Goh Goh and I were protesting this juice. It was Willie’s. My brother always asked our mom when she’d return from Costco, Did you buy this or did he pay for it? Anything Willie bought, Goh Goh refused, and I would say the same but would eventually relent. Ga Jeh on the other hand favored my mother's boyfriend, seemingly without reservation. She rode on the back of his motorcycle once, and the next chance I got, I did the same. “Traitors,” our brother had called us.
Ga Jeh poured the orange juice into her glass. “Mom's only pushing Lowell because you're a boy.” My mother didn't seem to have the same aspirations for my sister, never encouraging her to be a doctor or lawyer as she would with me and Goh Goh.
“I don't think like that,” my mother said as though the notion were ridiculous.
“Stop lying,” Ga Jeh said.
“I'm Mommy. Why would I need to lie?” She waved her hand dismissively.
“I don't care where Dickson goes, as long as it's not my school,” Ga Jeh said and left the kitchen, sipping on her juice.
I sat on the cushioned folding chair and set the form on the kitchen table, which was draped with a fruit tablecloth. I took the cap off my pen and slipped a Chinese language magazine under the form for writing support. “It's McAteer or Galileo,” I said to my mother. Galileo was my zoned high school.
“Now you want to go to Galileo.” She plopped down on the chair next to me. “I ride the bus with those kids. Bad kids. Swearing in Chinese.”
“That's why I need you to sign, so I won't go there.”
She held the form, inspecting it. “But how come not Lowell?”
“Are you listening? Deadline. Has. Passed. Sign the form, damn.”
“Gong meih yeh? You love to swear now, huh? Shit. Fuck. Damn. Gong ah. Gong ah.”
“Damn's not a cuss word.”
She raised her hand like she was about to slap me, her lips tightening together.
I flinched though she'd never actually slapped me before, only some finger jabs to my temple.
“You don't want to listen to me,” my mom said. “You want to do whatever you want, go live with your dad.”
The phone was within arm's reach. I hit the “talk” button repeatedly, a steady rhythm of beeps. A red dot sped across the display on the phone, searching for the best channel. Minnesota Dickson would not have to endure lectures. His father would be too tired from work for that. MD would have his own room. MD would live in a house. He and his father would watch football together. MD would become a Vikings fan. Maybe a Twins fan. MD would make money busing tables at the Chinese restaurant where his father worked. MD would attend a suburban school, an all-white school. They would know nothing about him except that he was the Asian kid from California. He would make snowmen. Carry snowballs in his pocket. He would ski to school.
“Stop playing with the phone. I sign at the bottom?”
“You really would let me live in Minnesota?”
“If you want to go, go. I don't care.”
I handed her the phone. “Can you ask him?”
She looked at the Garfield clock. His striped tail hung and swayed in one direction while his droopy eyes darted in the opposite direction. The clock was my mother's idea, but maybe Willie had bought it for her. “It's late there,” she said. “I'll call tomorrow.” She returned the phone to its base.
“He won't want to take care of you. He has to work.”
“I don't need a babysitter.”
“Yeah, yeah, you're a big boy now, right? What are you going to do when you get sick?”
“You don't even know how to take pills.”
I had a phobia of swallowing them. My mother would wrap pills for me inside a napkin and hammer them down to powder, then she'd mix the powder with water in a spoon, using a toothpick to stir.
“I'm sure Bah Ba has a hammer.”
“Who's going to take you to the doctor?” she said. Our main doctor was an old guy with a cane whose office was a small room in the back of a store. He'd have me rest my hand on a purple pillow, and he'd check my pulse. In three seconds he'd have a diagnosis. To be sure he'd ask me to spit phlegm on a paper towel. He'd examine the color and write an herbal prescription. At home my mother would cook the herbs in a clay pot. The process took over an hour and stunk up the kitchen. You'd think she was boiling a filthy boot. When I drank the bowl of the dark brown concoction, the foul odor would hit me, and I'd have to pinch my nose just to drink it. It tasted so bitter and nasty, I knew it had to work.
“Are you going to ask him or not?”
“Okay, okay. Tomorrow.” She signed the form. “Happy? No more talking. I have to finish washing dishes. I have to sweep, mop.”
My mother would continue to give me the run around for months. “He hung up so fast,” she'd say. “Next time. Next time.”
I could've asked Bah Ba myself, but I was too chickenshit. I worried he'd brush me off and tell me to put my mother on the phone. Worse, I was afraid he'd be honest. Tell me he didn't want me around. My hope lay in his duty as a father. We counted on that each month. He was the breadwinner, never failing to mail home the check that paid our bills. Perhaps he could be convinced that it was his fatherly obligation to allow me to move in with him.
One night, the phone rang in the living room and I picked up. It was Bah Ba.
“Benson?” he said.
“Dickson,” I said.
“Get your mom.” Bah Ba and I had fallen into a groove. It was understood, no chitchat. Just hand the phone to my mother.
“She's in the bathroom.” I lied. My mother was in the kitchen.
“Have her call me when she comes out.”
“Hold on. I heard the toilet flush. She'll be out in a sec.”
“Does Minnesota get hot in the summer?”
“Gaan haih ah,” he said as though it was a dumb question, or maybe I was being sensitive, and his tone only reflected the natural harshness of Cantonese.
“It's not sunny here at all.”
“That's better. Never gets too hot or too cold.”
“Do you like living alone?”
“Leih gong mey yeh?”
“Living in a house by yourself. Isn't that boring?”
“You think I just lay around the house all day?”
“No, that's not what I meant.”
“I wake up early. Work. Come home. Sleep. No time to think.”
“I'm starting high school.”
“I am turning fourteen in a few months.”
“Who's on the phone?” my mother asked.
“Bah Ba.” I passed her the receiver of the French-style phone.
She held the receiver on her shoulder with her back to me.
I tugged her shirt and pointed at the phone, then myself.
She raised a finger to her lips to shush me.
“Remember to ask,” I said.
“Dickson,” she said into the phone, “he wants me to ask you something. What? Yeah, I'll look for it.” She grabbed the base of the phone and carried it to the kitchen. The rotary dial face contained a picture of my mom crowned with a lei, and the photo would rotate with the dial of a number. The photographer was Willie.
I couldn't follow their conversation, only hearing my mother sorting through envelopes and her shuffling about in her flip flops.
“Houh la,” she said, hung up the phone, and returned it to the end table.
“Well, what did he say?” I asked.
“What I told you he'd say, 'No time.' See?”
“Call him back. Say I've got no good choices for high school. Say Minnesota's my only shot for college.”
“What kind of father do you think you have? How many times has he asked anything about you? About any of you? He doesn't care about his kids.”
Maybe a father can see something in his son no one else can, and what my father saw in me repulsed him. Perhaps it was my likeness to him.
Hanging on the wall above the phone was a studio photograph of our family taken in Hong Kong shortly before we immigrated to the States. The five of us sit on the floor of a room, huddled together, as though we want others to believe this is our living room. I'm in the center, a year and a half old, my body round like a lump of clay, laughing because I do not know any better. My brother and sister sit next to me, one on each side, their legs extended straight out and their backs slouched. My parents lean into each other. My mother's her usual photogenic self, with the same smile she has in all photos. Posed but not fake. She seems happiest when photographed. My dad's rocking bell bottoms and a burgundy sweater. He looks relaxed, eager for more of whatever this is, as though when the photo is done, he will roll around the carpet with me and raise me high up in the air. But this was all staged. This was not our living room, and the father rendered in this picture was a stranger.
My father was one only on paper, on a form for free lunch, on public housing records, on a family tree assignment. He was a check in the mail. I understood now this was no accident, and it wasn't a shortcoming. It was the way he preferred it, the way he wanted it to remain.
“Don't be so sad,” my mother said. “How about I make beef lettuce wraps tonight? Or we can get McDonald's.” She went to rub my shoulder, but I brushed past her. I went to my room and grabbed a comic book from the shelf, an issue of the X-Men. I brought the comic to the bathroom, the only place in the house I could steal some privacy. I sat on the lid of the toilet and found myself in the Australian outback.
The X-Men were laying low, building a new headquarters while the world assumed they had died. They were still missing their leader, Professor X. He was probably stuck light years away on a spaceship or some mysterious planet. He'd been M.I.A. since I began following the series a couple of years ago. Perhaps this is what drew me to the X-Men, a band of rejects, each with a particular mutated gene—steel skin, wings, the ability to heal any wound, the ability to turn air into ice—all of them waiting for one man to return. Maybe he never would. Maybe he wasn't stuck. Maybe he was happier in outer space and had no intention of returning to Earth to guide his former pupils. Maybe we'd been suckers for hoping.