JEN SOOKFONG LEE
The Rusty Toque | Issue 4 | Fiction | February 15, 2014
Frozen, Jen Sookfong Lee’s novel-in-progress, opens on a sunny May morning as social worker Jessica Campbell is sorting through her mother’s belongings after her recent death. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery—two dead girls curled into the bottoms of her mother’s deep chest freezers. Almost immediately, she remembers two runaway teenaged sisters who lived with the family in 1988 as foster children—Casey and Jamie Chung, troubled, beautiful and wild. Jessica struggles with grief, guilt and a crumbling relationship as she tries to piece together how Casey and Jamie died and what role her mother played during the end of their lives. Part crime drama and part literary exploration into class, race and the myth of social heroism, Frozen unflinchingly probes human desire, ambition and memory, and the lengths we might resort to when faced with an assault on our self-constructed identities.
EXCERPT FROM FROZEN:THE SMALLEST TOUCH, BURNING
Wayne woke up in his parents’ house and pulled on his dirty Lee jeans from the night before. He ate breakfast by himself in front of the television as his father silently packed his toolbox for work. There was nothing to say, really, because all of their conversations began or ended with his father yelling in Chinese, “You need to get a job and move out.” So Wayne just watched Norm Perry read the news and said nothing while his father slammed and locked the front door.
His mother was scrubbing the congee pot in the kitchen. As he brought his cereal bowl to the sink, Wayne kissed her on the cheek. She grunted, but leaned her body into him, the best hug she could manage with her hands covered in rubber gloves. Wayne put on his cracked leather jacket and shoes and went into the backyard, where he smoked two cigarettes while staring at drying leaves on the cherry tree next door.
That afternoon, Bill came by in his rusty, second-hand Buick. “You want to go for a ride?” he yelled from the open window. Wayne jumped in and they careened around the corner as Wayne’s mother watched from the front step, hands on her hips.
They drove and drove, through downtown and across the bridge, past the fancy shopping mall and along the water. The houses had enormous windows, like blind, unblinking eyes pointed toward the inlet. The sun was thick but cold, as it often is in the fall, but both men had their windows rolled down, the wind circling through the car, whistling through the fabric of their sleeves.
“Did you ever notice that the ocean out here doesn’t smell like anything?” Wayne shouted.
“No,” Bill said, smirking.
“You see, when you go to New Brighton or down by the train tracks, you can smell fish and wood and salt. Out here, it’s just fucking clean.”
“You notice the weirdest shit.”
And it was true. Wayne did notice the weirdest shit. Everywhere he looked, there was something to see, something to tuck into his brain for the future moment when he would notice something else that would turn that one old, remembered detail into an epiphany. As he sat in Bill’s car, he thought about how here, in West Vancouver, the waterfront was pristine and lined with tidy houses with gardens cleaner than his jacket. Not six blocks from his parents’ house east of Chinatown, the waterfront was dirty, littered with the detritus of work: split and gnarled two-by-fours, Styrofoam coffee cups, puddles of spilled motor oil. What was the difference? It was the same water, but long ago, someone decided which portion would be worth looking at and which would be used to power and clean the plants and refineries and shipping containers. It seemed unfair to him, but he couldn’t figure out why.
Bill turned left, into a small road that was poorly paved. Wayne could reach out and touch the cliffs on the side if he wanted, but he kept his hands in the car. He didn’t trust nature. Plants could make you itch. Animals and bugs hid in every crevice.
“Where are we going?” he asked quietly, in a voice that could have been a child’s.
Bill threw a cigarette out the window. “Lighthouse Park. Ever been?”
No, Wayne had never been. He had kept to the familiar confines of downtown, East Vancouver and, sometimes, Chinatown, if his mother wanted him to help with the groceries. He thought of Stanley Park and its well-ordered seawall and rose garden and bowling lawn, but he knew just by staring at the this park’s gate (painted and green and looped with rusted chains that may very well have been chewed on by bears) that this was something wilder. As they walked on the uneven paths, kicking aside pine cones and fallen branches, Wayne briefly thought about running back through the trees and into the car. He would feel less buried there, less held against his will by the darkness of the tall firs and spruces. But he kept up, not wanting to disappoint Bill who strode along without hesitation, as if he weren’t an immigrant East Van boy with a Chinese accent he had uselessly tried to erase. As if he had grown up in a forest with squirrels and whatever bird that was calling like the three-note chime of the shiny white Skytrain.
Finally, they burst through the woods and stood on a flat, wide rock. Ocean and more ocean. A sailboat. The lighthouse on a point further west. Wayne swallowed, trying not to throw up.
“You see,” said Bill, “sometimes you need to get out of the city to get some perspective.”
Wayne’s perspective had never included parks that teetered on the edges of cliffs, where nothing stood between you and the raging water below. He wasn’t sure he wanted it to.
“It’s beautiful, right?”
Wayne cleared his throat. “Sure.”
Just then, a spider floated down on a thread and landed, delicately, on Wayne’s nose. At home, if a spider touched him, he would swat it away immediately, not caring if its carcass lay on the floor of his bedroom for one day or three weeks. But here, he let it crawl over his nostril, his right cheek and down to his jaw. He thought he could feel its little feet pricking his skin, feeling with its legs the strange, soft human underneath. When Wayne finally breathed, the spider lifted off on his exhale and away. He tried to find it among the cracks in the rock he was standing on, but he saw nothing, only bits of moss and pebbles that could have been spiders but weren’t.
He had lost it. But he still felt the trail of its movement on his face. It was unbearable, feeling the smallest touch like this as if his skin had been stripped off and he was nothing but nerves in the sunshine. He didn’t feel like throwing up anymore, but he wasn’t sure this was better. Rubbing his hands over his eyes, he tried to remember the cockroaches and geckoes that crawled over the floors of his family’s old, grubby apartment in Hong Kong, but he couldn’t conjure them up. He was five when they had left, and the memories often shifted and faded until he was no longer sure if they were real or made up.
Bill turned. “Now I’m ready to face the day.”
Wayne nodded. “What should we do now?”
“Let’s go back downtown and get some lunch. And I should go see my girls tonight. Ginny leaves for the night shift at nine. We’ll bring some beer.”
“Beer? For the girls?”
Bill let out a roaring laugh, sharp and explosive. “No, dumbass. It’s for us. Those girls will fall asleep by ten. And then we can have a little party. You in?”
Wayne nodded again. He had nothing else to do. May as well tag along, watch his friend play with his daughters and drink. If he played this right, he might not see his parents again until tomorrow.
That evening, Bill parked his car in front of his old home and turned off the ignition. Wayne reached for the door release, but then he saw that Bill wasn’t moving. Quickly, he leaned back in his seat and stared through the windshield at the car parked in front.
“You see that?” Bill nodded toward the house.
Wayne had seen that yard and front step and chipped siding many times before, so he wasn’t sure what kind of answer Bill was looking for. He nodded slowly. He hoped he looked wise.
“That was my house. I used to pay the rent.”
“And now my wife hates me so much that I have to sneak in when she’s not home just to see my kids. It’s fucking crazy, is what it is.” He slapped the steering wheel with his hand.
Wayne nodded more enthusiastically. “No doubt.”
“I sleep in a shitty room in a shitty hotel. No one cleans. Let me tell you something, Wayne.” Bill turned and pointed a finger at Wayne’s nose. “Never get married. Women will mess you up.”
Secretly, Wayne had always wanted to get married. Sometimes, just before he fell asleep at night, he imagined the kind of woman he might want. She was pretty, of course, and small (because Wayne himself was on the short side), and knew how to make Chinese soup just like his mother. When he came home from work, she would wrap her arms around his waist and whisper how glad she was to see him, her breath honeyed and warm on his chin. And then she would step out of her dress, right there in the living room, before pulling off his work pants and pushing him to the floor.
“Women,” Wayne muttered. “Nothing but trouble.”
As they walked up the path, the front door swung open and light spilled on to the porch. Casey stood in the threshold, holding a mug and wearing grey wool socks pulled high over the legs of her pyjamas. She smiled at her father. As she stepped forward, she saw Wayne standing, his hands stuffed into the pockets on his jeans. Her face rearranged itself and stared blankly. But even then, Wayne could see the swirling in her eyes, deep pools that never quite stopped moving, even as the rest of her was still.
“Bear, you remember Wayne,” said Bill as he took the mug she handed him.
Bill stepped inside and nodded. “Bring him some tea too, will you?”
Wayne had to slide past Casey to get into the house as she stood holding the door open. He could smell her long, black hair: musky and sweet, tinged with berries or apples or some kind of fruit that Wayne was too muddled to remember. How old was she the last time he had seen her? Eleven? Even without looking, he knew there was an adult body underneath those layers of flannel. She was warm, radiating in a way only a grown woman could. When she walked into the kitchen, he looked sideways at her ass. Bill coughed.
“She’s a pretty girl,” he said and Wayne felt his ears turn hot. “Stubborn though. Marches to her own beat, if you know what I mean.”
Just then, Jamie ran into the room, and Wayne was relieved to see she still looked like a proper little girl—bony elbows, hair fine and tangled, a smear of food on the front of her shirt. She pulled a binder off the shelf beside the couch and sat down on Bill’s lap.
“It’s my social studies report, Dad. Look—I got a B.”
As Jamie walked her father through the parliamentary practices of Japan, Wayne stared at the ceiling. Circles of plaster ebbed and curled. He thought of his mother, the dead slug he found in the yard this morning, the spent cigarette butts in the ashtray in his room. Anything but Casey, whose movements he could hear as she moved around the kitchen behind him.
“My girl’s a genius, Wayne.”
“Yeah. I can see that.”
He heard a voice. “Your tea.”
Wayne turned around in his chair and saw Casey, a half-smile on her lips, holding out a steaming mug. He wondered what it felt like to hold her narrow, pointed face in his hands, his thumbs along the lines of her jaw. Quickly, he looked down.
“Do you want the tea or not?” she asked.
Wayne took the mug and turned back to Bill, who was tickling Jamie as she screamed with laughter on the couch. Casey sat down on the floor, facing the old, unusable fireplace.
“Are you working?”
Wayne jumped in his seat. “What?”
“I said: are you working?” She smiled and shook her head.
“No. I’m between jobs.”
“Oh, like Dad.” Wayne couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic, or if she was just stating a simple fact. He was on edge, as if one wrong step could send him plummeting, dizzy and confused. But, strangely, he liked it. This was not how he felt sitting with his parents watching Jeopardy.
“How’s school going?” he ventured.
Casey snorted. “Fine. I mean, grade nine is boring and I can’t wait to leave, but it’s fine. Mom wants me to graduate though. So I have options.”
He could hear the sarcasm now. He smiled. “I didn’t finish high school.”
“Exactly. You’re still a decent human being, right?”
Wayne wasn’t sure this was true. He had meant to tell her that he was jobless and lived with his parents and couldn’t finish reading a newspaper, but he didn’t. She looked up at him with those long eyes and all he could do was nod.
“Are you happy?” Casey asked this easily, as if this was a question Wayne was asked every day. But the truth was he had never been asked about his happiness before. Not once.
“No.” It was all he could say.
“Really? Why not?”
She was fourteen years old. There was no way she would understand how his life had started out with emptiness and goals and a great, winding future. But then one job lost led to another job that sucked, which led to discontent and an unlawful strike and weeks and weeks of unemployment. Here he was, thirty-seven years old, still cobbling together days of work that added up to hardly anything, only enough to keep him in cigarettes and beer while he lay in his childhood bedroom, kicking at the twin footboard with his man-sized legs. He couldn’t answer Casey’s question with all of that, so he sighed and swallowed.
“Things just didn’t turn out the way I thought they would.”
“There’s still time. You’re still young. Ish.”
Wayne laughed and leaned forward so he could speak quietly. “What about you? Are you happy?”
Casey blushed. “I don’t know. Sometimes. I’m happy when Dad’s here. Like right now.” She smiled at him as if he weren’t that loser who didn’t own a car and was only five foot six. He could see that, to her, he was a fully-formed man, one who was just as strong and capable as every man she had ever met. She didn’t know about his failures, but he knew she wouldn’t care, because to a woman as new as she was, the past meant nothing because she hadn’t been there. He stared at her lips. Pinker than he had ever thought possible.
For another hour, Wayne and Casey chatted quietly, about how she had asked her mother for a cat even though she knew it was pointless. About the docks, where Wayne had worked when he left high school and where all the men did was move stuff and grunt until all they could do was sit still for fifteen minutes, just long enough to finish a smoke and a cup of coffee. She asked questions, because she was interested and didn’t know, but made no pretense of knowing more than she did, as children do when faced with the strange and new. Instead, she listened and looked up at Wayne with her bottomless eyes until he squirmed in his chair and had to get up to use the bathroom. Looking in the mirror, he thought that he should go home and never come back, but she liked him, honestly liked him even though the only woman who ever looked at him these days were the hookers who shivered in the night air on Powell Street. So he stayed.
At ten fifteen, the girls went to bed. Casey patted Wayne on the shoulder on her way and said, “Good night. It was nice talking to you.” The spot burned. He watched her walk into the hall, each step like electricity travelling through the floor and straight into his body.
Afterward, Bill and Wayne sat in the back yard, smoking and not saying much. After an hour, Bill turned to Wayne and said, “Thanks for coming. I really appreciate your company. It’s not easy, this thing with me and Ginny.”
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but would you mind coming by with me again? You know, just when you have the time.”
Wayne hesitated. Bill heard the pause and spoke quickly to fill the silence.
“I know you could be doing something a lot more fun, being a single guy and everything. But it would mean a lot to me to have a friend by my side. I hate walking into this house as it is. Damn that Ginny.”
What could he say? His buddy needed him. It would be mean and irresponsible not to come. Wayne set down his bottle and punched Bill lightly on the arm.
“I’ll come whenever I can.”
The night was shimmering with house lights and car lights and the lights on Grouse Mountain. Wayne felt his heart beating like a swinging hammer. It hurt. But he suddenly knew that he had been a sleepwalker his entire life, a man who had barely breathed to pass the time. Until now. He was awake. Startlingly, painfully, joyously awake.
JEN SOOKFONG LEE was born and raised in Vancouver's East Side, where she now lives with her husband and son. Her books include The Better Mother, The End of East and Shelter, a novel for young adults. Her poetry, fiction and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including ELLE Canada, The Antigonish Review and Event. A popular radio personality, Jen was the voice behind CBC Radio One’s weekly writing column, Westcoast Words, for three years. She appears regularly as a contributor on The Next Chapter and Definitely Not the Opera, and is a frequent co-host of the Studio One Book Club.