SHE WATCHED HIM from her living room window, as she always did. From six floors up, her son was no larger than a fingernail, and as he made his way across the parking lot of her retirement community, she saw how he was favoring his left leg.
"Ah-ee-goo," Beverly Kim said.
It was an expression she used to hear back home in Korea, a common phrase old women would utter in reaction to misfortune. Even someone who didn't know a lick of Korean would understand what was meant by those words when they heard the heavy sigh weighing down the first syllable.
Beverly touched up her makeup and brushed her hair in front of the bathroom mirror. Her gray roots were showing a bit, but, otherwise, she looked good. Not bad for a soon-to-be-grandmother. The thought made her smile but also touched her with apprehension, for both herself and her son.
The doorbell rang.
"Hi Mom," Tim said in Korean when she opened the door.
She had fully intended to say hello back to him with equal serenity, but she couldn't do it. She couldn't remember when she'd seen such a ridiculous smile on his face, and it seemed like a preemptive lie, to make her believe he wasn't in pain.
"You were limping," she said.
"I was . . . what?"
"Limping." She tried to think of the word in English but couldn't, so she did the next best thing, which was to pantomime.
As she walked in front of her son playing this sad game of charades, Beverly wondered how much wider this linguistic breach would become between the two of them. Most of her friends here in Oak Bridge, New Jersey, were Korean, so she found herself speaking less English than ever, and Tim's command of his once-native tongue had been in steady decline since the day they'd immigrated when Tim was 9.
He said he was fine, that he'd slipped while repainting the spare bedroom, and handed her a book.
So here it was, the thing that meant the world to her son. It was gray and soft-covered, and on the top was an unfamiliar phrase: Advance Reader's Copy. Below those words was the title in a large bold print: BETWEEN THE STITCHES. She knew what between meant, but not stitches. He was describing his novel to her, but Beverly didn't understand much of it. Tim tried his best to stick to Korean, but every time he had to resort to English, it was a word she didn't know. What she was able to gather was this: It had to do with yah-goo and sah-rahng, baseball and love, involving two men and a woman.
"Congratulations," Beverly said.
"I can hardly believe it," he said, looking over her shoulder as she flipped through the pages. "I've spent the last eight years of my life writing this thing."
Eight years, Beverly thought, for this pile of bound paper. She was supposed to feel proud of her son, but as she held this little book-it wasn't even that heavy-she was filled with anxiety. It was great that he'd been able to publish this book, but was there a guarantee there would be another? She knew it was possible for someone to get paid for writing about things that never actually happened, but she just never thought Tim could be that person. She'd never written a single story or poem in her life, and neither had her late husband, and running through all the uncles and aunts on both sides of the family, she couldn't locate anyone who could have influenced Tim to take up this "profession." Understandably, Tim was his own person, but he was the product of his father and his mother-he grew inside her for nine months, drank what she drank and ate what she ate. Didn't that count for anything?
"It's very nice," Beverly said, and handed the book back to Tim.
He opened it up to a random page and stared at it for what seemed like a very long time. She didn't know quite what to make of this gesture, wondering if he expected her to say something else.
"Is everything okay?" she asked.
"Sure," her son said, slapping the book shut. "It's just that, I don't know, now that I have this thing, it doesn't seem like much."
"It's a very nice book," Beverly said.
"You're right," he said brightly, then added, "and I did get a check for $5,000 for it."
She turned away before Tim could see the shock on her face. That was it, $5,000? For eight years of work? It was just like him to be satisfied with such a tiny total. Anyone else in his right mind would've argued for a higher payout, but not her son. He went out of his way to avoid confrontation of any kind, so really, this was no surprise. Whoever paid him-Beverly imagined a fat old guy in a suit sitting behind a giant mahogany desk-probably had a big laugh.
"Hey," Tim said, tapping his wristwatch, "shouldn't we head down for lunch?"
The idea of walking over to the elevator, riding it down to the cafeteria, standing in the food line with their brown trays, and forking up bite after bite of meaty grub-Saturdays it was usually some formulation of turkey-it all seemed like more work than it was worth, but what else was there to do? The cafeteria, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the manicured lawn, seemed more like a mausoleum than an eatery this afternoon, with the skies cloudy and gray and the place almost deserted.
She led Tim to the best table; the one in the back that faced the row of freshly planted tulips. Because it had rained in the morning, the red and white bulbs looked bright enough to be running on electricity.
"Aren't they just beautiful?" she asked.
Beverly nudged toward the window.
"Oh. Yeah, sure are," he said.
She'd always thought writers were an observational lot, but her son was anything but. As she cut up her slice of roast turkey, Beverly remembered the countless times she would shift the location of something significant in their old living room-like the lamp by the couch or the angle of the coffee table-and it would take Tim sometimes weeks to actually notice the change.
"What's funny?" Tim asked.
"Just thinking," she said. "Of you, when you were young."
"Ah," he said. "Soon I'll be in your place, and I won't be laughing."
"You'll be fine," she said. "You and Meredith will be fine."
"Meredith, yes. Me, probably not."
Beverly didn't understand what he meant by this, so Tim proceeded to explain the next 10, possibly 15 years of his life. After Meredith had the baby, he planned to stay home full-time.
"Why?" Beverly said, and now it was Tim's turn to laugh, and as she heard her son's cackles echo through the empty dining hall, realization slowly sank in. Tim informed her he was going to quit his job at the medical journal, and to make that financially viable, he would become the primary caretaker of the baby while Meredith worked full-time.
It was perhaps the single most frightening thing Beverly had ever heard.
Tim prattled on about other things as lunch ran its course, but Beverly's mind was elsewhere. Her son was going to feed her grandchild. Burp her grandchild. Change her grandchild's diaper. No matter how hard she tried, Beverly couldn't quite imagine any of this. She could, however, easily envision Tim ignoring the crying baby while his own eyes stayed glued on the computer screen. Leaving it on the sofa while he ran to pick up the ringing telephone, the baby rocking and rolling as it neared the edge of the cushion.
Beverly's initial reaction was to offer Tim her services of childrearing, but she made herself stop. Maybe 10 years ago she could've done it, but now she wasn't so sure. Taking care of a baby was physically demanding work, and not only that, Beverly had walked out of her own room without her key twice already this month. What if she left the burner on after warming a bottle of formula? Or went to the supermarket and locked herself and the baby out of the car?
None of this was worth thinking about, because knowing Tim, he would scoff at her suggestion anyway, and he would be right to do so. This was going to be his and Meredith's child after all, so it was up to them to work it out.
Still, she worried for the future. If only they lived closer, but Tim and Meredith were more than an hour north by car. Nowadays, after just half an hour of driving, Beverly's lower back felt as if it were being squeezed by a vice. With every passing year, it seemed as if another part of her body prevented her from performing some simple task.
"Are you done?" Tim asked, pointing at her untouched slab of turkey. "Because if you are, that's mine."
Beverly smiled and pushed her plate toward her son, and watching him eat it gave her an insane amount of pleasure. It was a mother thing, she was sure of it, built into her from millions of years of evolution, and it was something men didn't have.
They took their trays to the bussing station and dunked the utensils and dishes into their designated wells, and just like that, her son's visit was coming to an end. It always seemed too quick, but she also knew it was a significant portion of Tim's time: two hours of driving plus two hours of lunch, a good chunk of a Saturday he wasted eating a tasteless lunch with his old mother.
Outside, it seemed later than three in the afternoon, the sky now thick with rain clouds. As they walked past the pink clusters of chrysanthemums, Beverly felt as if she had failed him somehow. Had she told Tim how proud she was? That she was happy his dream was coming true?
"Thank you for coming," she blurted out, and then wished she hadn't. It sounded wrong, like an innkeeper thanking her guest.
"Thank you for having me," Tim said with mock seriousness. He handed her his book.
"Why are you giving this to me?"
She hadn't meant to offend him, but she could see Tim took it this way. She snatched it from him before he could rescind his gift.
"I wasn't sure you had other copies," she said.
They said nothing the rest of the way, the only sound the chirp from Tim's car when he pressed a button on his keychain.
"I'll be reading from it two weeks from now at a . . . book . . ." he trailed off, the Korean word not coming to him.
"Bookstore," Beverly said.
"Right. So it'll be good for you to have it, so you can follow it, sort of, when I read."
He knew as well as she did that she couldn't read anything complicated like his novel. It may have been a sweet gesture on his part to bestow his book to his English-illiterate mother, but as Beverly ran her fingers over its glossy cover, she couldn't help but feel guilty for her ignorance.
Tim got into his car and rolled down his window. "So what do you have planned for the rest of the day?"
"Oh," she said, "this and that."
He sighed heavily and cranked the ignition. "I wish I had just 'this and that' to do," he said.
She stepped away and watched him back out of his space and drive off. She waved, but as usual, he didn't look back.
Back in her room, Beverly placed Tim's book on the coffee table and fell onto the couch. She reached for the remote and turned on the television, but she really wasn't watching. She just wanted to fill this space with sound instead of silence.
Beverly picked up Tim's book and flipped to the end. Two hundred and twenty-four pages. She'd always been good with numbers, and she knew that 14 divided into it evenly. Sixteen pages a day. It was possible. If she put all her energy into it, she could do it.
She walked up to the bookshelf next to the television and scanned the spines. The English-Korean dictionary was on the third shelf, still in its plastic wrap.
Halfway through the book, Beverly had to admit disappointment. It wasn't due to a lack of progress-she was on schedule, reading through 120 pages in the first week with another week left for the remainder. The problem was that the book was poorly written, and Beverly felt terrible for having such a thought. Wasn't it the job of a good mother to believe that everything her child touched turned to gold? And here she was, assiduously looking up every word she didn't know while trying not to yawn, downing multiple cups of coffee to keep her bored eyes from glazing over.
If Beverly could pinpoint the problem, it was that the novel was devoid of any humor. Every character in the book was horribly tormented: Jake, the pitcher, was orphaned when his house caught on fire and he was the sole survivor. Mitch, the catcher, had killed his own brother with a snow blower, and although it was in self-defense, the guilt tore at him. Then there was Elizabeth, the daughter of the team's owner, who'd returned from her Peace Corps duty at Mali where she accidentally poisoned the river of her village, killing all the children and barely escaping with her own life. Even worse than the absurd plot was the dialogue-outlandish, lurid exchanges that made Beverly wonder how her son ever got someone to even read this, let alone publish it. At one point, Elizabeth tells Jake at the top of a cliff while a tornado ravages the town beneath, "Just hold me, hold me like it's the end of it all and don't look back, don't look back at this cruel, fragile world!"
Despite this silliness, Beverly kept on. She'd heard of other authors pouring their lives into their work under the guise of fiction, the writing a form of therapy, so she'd approached the possibility of seeing herself in her son's fiction with both excitement and trepidation. Of course she hadn't expected him to lay out his real life exactly, but there wasn't even a sliver of anyone-not Tim, herself, nor her late husband-in any of the characters, not a single recognizable event from his childhood. Initially she was relieved, but now, as she neared the finish line, Beverly had to admit she almost felt offended.
The book never got any better, the denouement downright disastrous. All three characters committed suicide, and although it'd been years since she saw Romeo and Juliet, the ending seemed like a blatant rip-off. Mitch thinks Elizabeth is dead, so he stabs himself, then Elizabeth wakes when her drug runs out, so she shoots herself, then when Jake sees them both dead, he jumps out the window. And like Shakespeare, each of the characters had a long, drawn-out soliloquy before their self-inflicted demise.
She was sitting on her bed, propped up against a mountain of down pillows, when she arrived at the last page, the last sentence, the last unknown word. It was half past midnight, the world outside her window still and black, as she opened her dictionary for the final time, she took pride at its binding, which was now broken in four places. The word was ceaselessly, which meant constant, forever, never-ending.
Kind of like this book, Beverly thought.
Now that she understood each word of the final sentence, she put them all together and read it as a whole: "So the bear beats on, the current against the boat, ceaselessly into the past."
What the hell did that mean?
This final scene, which had a circus bear striking a drum while a livewire of electricity was about to be touched to the hull of a sailboat, was spoken by the narrator of the novel, and no matter how many times Beverly read it, it made little sense.
She snapped Tim's book shut and cast it off to the end of the bed. She clapped twice to turn off her light and thought of her son, hunched over his computer keyboard, slaving over his book for all those years. She remembered the troubles he had at school, especially his difficulty with algebra, his forehead dotted with sweat as he struggled with his homework. Beverly knew her son wasn't a genius, but until now, it hadn't occurred to her that he could be a failure. He'd been at the same job for more than a decade and had been promoted just once. He hadn't found a woman to marry until just two years ago, and now, as he was about to turn 40, he was going to raise a baby. This life he was leading; it was all too little and too late.
Beverly didn't want to go to sleep with these awful thoughts swirling about, but when she opened her eyes it was already morning. It was a bright new day, and instead of deluging herself in a swell of negativity like the previous night, she decided to concentrate on the positive. As she brushed her teeth and washed her face, Beverly reminded herself that Tim had written a book, a book he would be reading at two o'clock at the BookLoft in front of a crowd, and she would be a part of the festivities. She didn't know when she would tell him her surprise, but she knew what she would say.
"I read it," she would tell him, "every word."
She had never been to the BookLoft, but she knew it was in the strip mall on the way to her dentist, about 15 minutes away. After lunch, she changed into the two-piece burgundy dress, the one with ruffles on the cuffs, and got on her way.
It was a lovely day for a drive, lines of forsythia bushes in bloom along the Garden State Parkway, so yellow they looked painted on. She opened the window a crack, not enough to mess up her hair, and the air smelled sweet and light, of grass and flowers and spring. Beverly clicked on the radio and what flowed out couldn't have been more perfect: Mozart. She was no expert of classical music, but him she knew. She'd read somewhere that Mozart wrote the bulk of his work before he turned 30, and she couldn't help but to think of her son and his belatedness.
Beverly wished the ride would never end, but soon she found herself pulling into the parking lot of BookLoft. There weren't too many cars, but she was half an hour early.
As she walked up to the entrance of the bookstore, she noticed a white poster board in the corner of the front window:
GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE
Stop, she said to herself. This is going to be a good day, so just stop.
Beverly pushed the door open and the attached bell tinkled her arrival. Greeting her now was another sign, leaning against a large brass easel, and this one was better than the first:
AUTHOR READING AND SIGNING
BETWEEN THE STITCHES
She wanted to ask where the reading was being held, but there was no one behind the register. As Beverly snaked around the aisles, she found two other customers lurking about. In the back of the store, she found a man probably about her age lifting a tall stack of books off the floor. He took a few unsteady steps backwards, and Beverly thought for sure the pile would tumble, but he was able to dump them into a rolling shelf without catastrophe.
"Good afternoon," the man said. His eyebrows were like a pair of gray caterpillars, and hanging around his neck on a gold chain were his black-rimmed eyeglasses.
"Hello," Beverly said. "Where is reading?"
"Right where you are," he said. "But give me five minutes and you'll be amazed."
She didn't know what he meant because the area was a complete mess, with towers of books rising from the ground like stalagmites, but sure enough, all she had to do was wait. He might have been old, but he moved with surprising efficiency, and he seemed to have a system to control the chaos around him. Once he filled up one rolling shelf, he brought out another one, and soon Beverly could see the gray carpeting and the dozen or so wooden chairs emerge from the disarray.
"No more chair?" she asked.
"People lean against the shelves, some sit on the floor, it'll be fine," the man said. "You must be Tim's mother, right?"
Beverly's heart sank even deeper. She'd thought readings were earned, not given, but if this bookshop owner knew Tim already, this opportunity was nothing more than a favor.
"You know my son?"
The old man nodded. "Must be at least five years, because I remember when he first came in, we still actually had decent business. Before, you know, that Barnes & Noble popped up in Middletown."
Someone from the front of the store hollered, and the man excused himself. It was still 20 before two, so Beverly browsed the shelves around her. Most of the books looked old, their spines faded and cracked, the musty scent of their aged paper clogging the aisles. The more Beverly looked, the more depressed she got. Was this where books that didn't sell came to die?
How long before Tim would get here? Because nobody was going to buy it. No one knew who he was, and not only that, the novel itself was awful. And now he was going to quit his job. She had to talk some sense into him.
Meredith, Tim's wife, walked up and gave her a hug. She was a short woman, almost the same height as Beverly herself, and as far as she knew, Meredith was always happy. She was perpetually bright, like a light that never turned off, though now that she was seven months into her pregnancy, there were flickers of dimness.
"Hurt here?" Beverly said, gesturing to her back.
"It does, it does," Meredith said. "Tim's been wonderful, though, really helping out around the house."
Over by the reading area, her son was carrying a lectern with the old man, slowly shuffling the wooden box across the floor and setting it down in the middle of the room.
"I promised you, didn't I? My first reading would be at the BookLoft," Tim said.
"Guess you made it just in time," the old man said.
Beverly was about to tell Meredith that maybe they should go over there and sit, but the expression on her daughter-in-law's face made her pause. There was such admiration and love in the way she was gazing at Tim, and something else, too: an understanding.
In the beginning, Beverly had been the center of her son's life, but that was no longer the case. Which was actually the way it should be, because nothing was sadder than a 40-year-old man whose best friend was his mother. But still, she'd always envied Meredith for knowing the man her son had become.
"I read book," Beverly said.
Beverly felt herself standing up straighten "Between the Stitches. I read. All pages, all the way."
The smile that bloomed on Meredith's face was so kind, so without guile. It was like looking at an angel. How wrong it was for her to be jealous of this girl.
"I don't know what to say. It must've been incredibly hard," Meredith said.
Beverly unzipped her purse and took out the dictionary. She didn't expect anyone to question her claim, but if there were any doubts, she knew this would end them.
"So what did you think? Do you like it? Did you think it was funny? Because it's really funny ... but I don't know ... I'm not sure if people are going to agree."
Funny? This book? Beverly thought.
Meredith suddenly took her hand and led them away from where they'd been standing, by the art section of the bookstore.
"Tim!" she yelled. "Tim, your mother-you're not going to believe this."
There were more people milling around the reading area now, and Tim, who'd been shaking hands with one of them, turned to Beverly.
What if she hadn't understood a single word of the novel? Beverly had indeed read the book in its entirety, certain chapters twice, but it seemed possible that she hadn't actually comprehended it.
"She read your book," Meredith said. "Look at this dictionary she used, it's in tatters."
Tim stood there, silent. His eyes settled on the two books in Beverly's hands.
"You read it," he said.
"Every word," she said, feeling like a liar even though it was the truth.
A loud popping sound filled the store. The old man tapped his fingernail against the head of the microphone once more, then spoke into it.
"Let's get started, folks," he said.
Meredith guided Beverly to the two empty seats in front. As Tim made his way up the lectern, Beverly glanced at the crowd that had gathered around for her son. All seats were taken by white-haired men and women, and standing on the fringe was a small contingent of oddlooking people, a man with hair braided down to the middle of his back, a young girl with a glittering array of pierced rings running down one cheek.
"Good afternoon," Tim said. "I'm going to read from my book, but before I do so, I just want to point out someone, my mother." Tim extended his arm, the flat of his hand aimed at Beverly. "She read my book, and I can't even begin to tell you what that means to me."
There was a burst of applause, and Beverly wished to be anywhere but here.
Once the clapping died down, Tim cleared his throat and began to read and Beverly followed him on her copy. She thought she might remember some of these words, but she'd forgotten most of them. Belie? What was belie? And before she could decipher that one, she was attacked by infliction, then they kept coming like bullets out of a machine gun: reticent, conscience, irrevocable. She'd written out their definitions in her notebook, but he was reading too fast for her to keep up.
"See," Meredith whispered to her, "nobody's laughing."
Which wasn't exactly true. The weirdos in the back, the ones with the long hair, pierced tongues, and ripped-up jeans-they were chuckling. But the normal people sitting around her remained motionless as her son read line after line, page after page, their faces revealing varying degrees of boredom.
Beverly closed the book and set it on her lap. She waited for her son to finish. When he did, she would make sure to clap louder than anybody else in the room, hard enough for her hands to hurt.
Sung J. Woo is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in Pindeldyboz, KoreAm Journal, Storyglossia and The New York Times Magazine. His debut novel, Everything Asian, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books in April 2009.
SUNG WOO found getting into the head of his female protagonist for this issue's Lit story surprisingly easy: "Maybe it's the fact that I grew up with my mother and my two sisters and didn't reunite with my father until I was 10." In fact, his experiences with his mother inspired this story. "Although I speak Korean well enough, I speak and write English far better, so my first novel, coming out in April, will remain a source of mystery for my mother," said Woo, who lives in Washington, NJ. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, KoreAm Journal, Pinde/dyboz and Storyglossia.