“Min Jin Lee’s keen eye for class concerns and her confident, muscular writing about the conflicting pulls toward one’s cultural heritage and the unknowable, wide-open future make Free Food for Millionaires a pleasure.”
– Meg Wolitzer, The Position and Surrender, Dorothy
Short Stories | March 22, 2007
Axis of Happiness won the 2004 Narrative Prize from Narrative Magazine.
Published at (link): Narrative Magazine
THE MORNING HENRY EVANS stoppedby my office to tell me to go to Chicago, I was in the middle of my chapter-a-day habit: still in the Book of Hosea, much to my dismay, still in the Old Testament after years of dogged reading.
This habit required skimming the day's chapter of the Bible (usually the length of one onion-skin page ) , then reading the extensive commentaries in the footnotes, then finally reading the chapter again - all of this took on average of forty - five minutes. I did this at work because it was where I lived - fourteen hours a day, often six days a week. I couldn't help knowing some of the Bible because I was a P.K. (preacher's kid), but I'd started reading this fat copy of the NIV Study Bible with its elephant-gray leather cover because my mot h e r left it for me along with her modest wedding jewelry when she died three years ago.
I hadn't always liked being around my mother while she was alive . For years she'd suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. The chronic pain had given her pale, square face a kind of pinched, sour expression. The parishioners at my father's church called my mother a saint, and I suppose she wa s. But as her daughter, I didn't feel like I knew her very well, because she was so busy serving others. When I was a girl - eldest of four, the only girl, and the only one born in Korea - while my mot her cooked our dinners, made meals for bedridden parishioners, and folded the endless loads of laundry my brothers and I generated, I talked on the phone with my friends and read piles of library books. She left me alone to do my schoolwork because I wa s a very good student - the hope of academic greatness in my family. When she was growing up in a small town outside of Seoul, she had to drop out ofhigh school to work; there wasn't even enough money for the oldest son to finish school, that's how bad it was.
But she was always studying, trying to improve herself. "Increase your talents," she'd say. In the States, she worked on her English by reading People magazine, listening to NPR on the kitchen radio, and practicing on us kids. But her l's still sounded like r's, her f's became p 's, and she routinely dropped her d's. In private, my brothers and I mimicked her, and it wa s divine justice that on occasion, when I was especially nervo u s, I caught myself saying things l i ke"ko-pi" for coffee, referring to fried chicken as "Ken-tucky," or forgetting a particle in a sentence. These slips happened to my American-born brothers too, and Ben, the younge st and the funny one, would scan the room, looking like a scout with his right hand shielding his eyes, and say, "Is mom here?" We made fun of her behind her back, but we never q u e stioned the clarity of her thinking. When I talked back to her, she'd snap at me, "Yo u think you're so smart from reading all those books, but how smart can you be if you've neve r e ven read the Bible from front to back?"
Of course, there was nothing I could say to this - to dismiss this type of argument, I'd have to read the book.
My mother and father based their lives on a single idea: Salvation comes from the Lord . My father's cousin, who was an artist, had written this in hangul with a calligraphy brush on a verticalrice-paper banner. When youwa l ked into my parents' living room, the fi r st thing you saw was that banner hung next to a framed needlepoint of Jesus' face.
I figured out early that I didn't want their life - it was a hard, thankless existence with few comforts. But I couldn't reject their religion either. By the time I was grown, I'd had Pascal's wager drummed into me: What if God did exist and I was wrong in assuming that He didn't? So I hedged my bets, as they say, and stayed out of trouble. Each Sunday, I went to church with my husband and our infant daughter, tithed our pre-tax income, paid our live-in nanny's social security and health benefits, and was scrupulous in all my dealings.
About Christianity: I felt certain that God existed, that the historical person Jesus Christ was His son, and that I'd be saved if I believed that God's son redeemed me through His death and resurrection. The logic of redemption was satisfying, and I was willing to make the necessary leap of faith. But how can I say this?
I didn't feel much for God, and I certainly didn't want to deal with Him. Sure, I would do what He said, but I didn't have to like Him.
He loved me - I had read this, and of course, had sung it, heard sermons to this effect, but I think I believed it too because it made rational sense to me; after all, I was part of His creation - you have to love your children.
But was He interested in me?
No. I didn't buy that.
My mother's neat block- style Korean letters crowded the margins of her English-language Bible. The Book of Hosea only has fourteen chapters, but her marginalia nearly matched its length. In her tiny handwriting, it was as if I could see her. Late at nights, she'd usually be seated at the kitchen table with her right hand holding a cheap ballpoint pen at the ready to underline or bracket a passa ge - and with her left hand, she'd be twirling her bifocals slowly to and fro as if keeping the meter of a fine piece of music. After she finished her reading, I would catch her mumbling her prayers in Korean - hushed and breathless words mingled with tears as she called out to God. She was so contrite - her head bent low, her hands folded in a tight fist. She appeared so penitent for her small sins, which I imagined to be innocent, like gossip or pride - none of the biggies like murder or adultery. At the end of the first chapter of Hosea, she had written, "How could He want so much, and how can I offer Him so little?" Of course I found her piety annoying.
Yet there I wa s, in my spacious office in Manhattan onthe thirty- fifth floor ofa glassy skyscraper, reading her Bible behind closed doors. (I never told anyone that I did this because I had these rules: never discuss religion and never proselytize. That was my father's j o b.) When I traveled on business, I carried her Bible in my enormous purse and read it in my hotel room. This daily reading had started out as a kind of intellectual discipline - no different than when I studied Greek and Latin at Harvard. But I ke pt reading because I sensed that something might come of it - nothing like a gold star from a Sunday school teacher, but something significant, like some new feeling or wisdom - and even if nothing came of it, if I ever saw my mother again, then I'd at least have the last word. So there. Each day, after I read my chapter, I'd close the book and wait for a few seconds for something to happen - a call to prayer or some burst of feeling. But nothing. I didn't feel anything new, and I found that I didn't have anything to say to God.
It was only ten o'clock. I'd just slogged through a tedious letter agreement, and for breakfast I'd bought some pretzels and my second diet Coke of the day from the vending machine. I hadn't slept much the night before, or for the past ten months, ever since my daughter, Leah, was born. I asked Karen to put my calls through voice mail. (My sixty one-year-old secretary who swam laps before work was forever on my case telling me to put my head down for half an hour: "You're going to kill yourself if you don't sleep and eat b ett e r," she'd say, then she'd order orange juice with my lunch instead of the iced coffee that I'd asked for). So there I wa s, reading about the prophet Hosea and his rotten luck. To illustrate His own suffering, the Almighty tells Hosea to marry a faithless slut, who proceeds to bet r ay him. I was absently following the allegorical meaning of the circumstance when I heard a boom.
Henry Evans, the managing partner of Hillary and Gould, and the New York god of corporate securities, a.k.a. King Henry, had a funny knock. Boom. It was literally one knock. I shoved the hefty Bible into the secret space I'd made for it in my top desk drawer. I grabbed a pen and pretended to write something down, and I said, "Hi, Henry," without even glancing up. Only he could have gotten past Karen.
Henry took off his Malcolm X eyeglasses and pinched the bridge of his nose together with his thumb and forefinger - he did this when his eyes were tired. He put his glasses back on and looked at me with pity.
"What?" I said. He was taking in the full glory of what must 've been the worst I'd ever looked in the ten years we'd worked together.
"Never mind," he said, as if he'd thought better of it.