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New California Fiction : COLD HEARTED

July 17, 1994|DAVID WONG LOUIE | "We may have had two refrigerators," David Wong Louie says, "but otherwise 'Cold Hearted' is not about my family as much as it's about any son's changing perceptions of his father." The story is from a novel in progress, "The Barbarians Are Coming." His collection of stories, "Pangs of Love," published by Knopf in 1991, won a Los Angeles Times book prize for first fiction. He teaches writing and literature in UCLA's English department and at its Asian American Studies Center

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.

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