the piece that won gold key in Scholastic Art & Writing Awards (2018) 

One: Minky’s

        On Saturday nights, neighbors would stop by the cluttered counter to gossip with my mom. Saturday nights at Minky’s were always the busiest. My mom said that it was because the poor people needed to begin the week with something to do, or at least something to watch. Our shop was in a deserted town outside Anaheim, but there were always strange visitors. Grandmas with worn, freckled hands and too-black hair shrieked about having to go to the market every other day to feed their unmarried sons; their mouths puckered with complaints, but faces boasting with sly glances and smirks. Of course, I never told this to my mom. She would think of it as rude.

        But it didn’t matter what I thought of them because I was always behind the counter, in a small room lined with abandoned TVs; made invisible by the blue buzz of some cartoon. The best of them never knew of my existence. The Pink Room gave the left side of the TVs a pink glow. Sometimes, curious strangers emerging from the Pink Room would look into my little fortress and meet my screen-lit eyes, their expressions a mixture of bemused embarrassment. Scared, ashamed, sorry, or a combination of all three, they’d mumble goodbye and walk away. After a lost customer, my mom always looked back at me: smiling her sad smile with her dark eyes and wisps of hair hanging bedraggled across her pretty face. 

 

 

Minky’s 

it was.

Me, as alice in a wonderland existing under the world–

                                                                    a  s e c r e t

                                                                                        it was

between me and Mom.

a world full of candy and chips; cartoons and laughter

a world of rats as big as dogs and sneezes full of dust.

 

I remember the Pink Room.

First, the beaded curtain worn to lines: 

overgrown and greasy bangs to poke my eyes

Then, the ugly orange light: 

the only callused hands that knew to block my sight–

                                                                    a  s e c r e t  

                                                                                      it is 

between me and the old man.

black lace.

naked tummies.

feet cold from shame.

it was

Minky’s. 

 

Two: Family

        My parents were gone most of the day, but I was happy spending time with my grandma and my sister. I didn’t know much about my dad’s work. All I knew was that he was some kind of fashion designer. My mom was busy recording, organizing, and labeling thousands of DVDs and videotapes every day at Minky’s. Minky’s was our own dinky little castle. My dad, however, was a different story. My grandma told me that he went to work, but I didn’t really know what that meant because he would be sleeping when I left for school, and wouldn’t return until I had fallen asleep. For years, I only stole glimpses of the back of his sleeping head while rushing to school. I wondered if he did the same to me when he came back from work.

        Sometimes, he brought home buckets full of these bedazzled tracksuits home, dramatically flinging the trunk of the car open just for my sister and me to stare at the glimmering clothes in awe. We would dig through them for half an hour, trying to salvage what we could before either one of us claimed the one with more sequins. It was our personal Black Friday. And my dad and my mom would silently recede into the kitchen––my mom holding a mysterious check, and my dad fuming. I was too busy trying to rip a velvet headband from my sister’s unrelenting grip to notice.

        I never asked about my dad because, in my mind, I already knew. When my dad went to work every morning and came back at midnight I imagined him to be lounging on a ruby red velvet chair as he sketched brilliant designs in fits of inspiration. Besides, I was usually in the basement of my mom’s video shop, eyes glazed over from hours of cartoons––fingers sticky from melting ice-cream. I didn’t have the time nor the desire to know more about him and his work. My definition of him was enough because I couldn’t imagine my dad being anything less.

*

        I liked to tell my classmates that my mom was a housewife, just like everyone else’s mom. Why I lied, I don’t know, but I guess I was ashamed of my mom’s running makeup and small white hands in a shop where only strange neighbors visited. While the other mothers went shopping with their friends and played dress up with their kids, my mom worked. I didn’t want my family to seem poor. So when the girls in my class asked why my grandma always picked me up, I lied that my mom was sick. After a while, they stopped asking. Every morning, I arrived at school early. Sometimes, my teacher and I would even share a bowl of milkless Cheerios. She always offered to do my hair. I always said yes because there was never anyone else around that early in the morning, and all the other girls in my class came in with tight braids and pink bows in their permed hair. 

 

Three: Rise and Shine

     “But I don’t want to go.”

     “He’s going to work,” she yelled behind her shoulder as she picked up a bag full of my toys. We were cleaning out our balcony, and my dad wanted me to help him move the packed boxes from home to his workplace.

I was never offered to follow my dad to work before. The thought nor the offer never came up. My dad liked taking me to places like Home Depot, Ikea, and the market, but never his workplace.

I ran to the door. 

        After strapping in all the boxes, my dad sat in silence for a moment in the relentless summer sun. My dad was a man of few words. He was stocky and strong, showing neither joy nor sadness. He never cried. He never said no. Because of this, I grew up interpreting him through my imagination. In my head, he was Superman.

        The car ride to his factory was a slow one.

        We drove through the crowded streets of L.A as I sat watching the world through the window of our Honda––spying on the people on the sidewalks on either side of me. My right cheek was numb from leaning on the cold glass of the window for so long. One sad-looking lady was wearing a purple vest and forcing ripe mangoes into busy hands. I watched her as she scrambled back and forth on the streets, looking as if she were dancing in the silence of our car. Her purple vest was slowly turning navy in her sweat.

        The buzz and glamour of L.A faded as my dad drove on and on. Buildings that poked at the clouds were reduced to squat grey factories that lined the edges of the freeway. They stretched out and changed colors as the car flew by. There were a few other cars around and funny-looking abandoned shops. At last, we stopped in front of a factory––cracking and about ready to fall apart. It was scary to me. There was a spiky fence that groaned with the wind, and metal buckets with their insides stained black with use. We were apparently at his workplace.

***

        There was no front door. Shaking the key around the half-broken doorknob of the backdoor, my dad led me in. The fantasy of cotton-candy couches disappeared as a roach ran over my foot. There were warning signs everywhere I turned: bright yellow warnings of toxic materials related to cancer and neon blue and red warnings of chemical burns and dangerous machines. They reminded me of the bright colors of poisonous animals in the rainforest: otherworldly and far too bright. The biggest, as well as the most obnoxious, red sign seemed to laugh at me as soon as I walked in. It warned that there was no guarantee of safety. That all injuries were not to be taken into the responsibility of the company. I thought of the many times my dad came home with a big bandage on his arm. He told us that it was from fighting monsters to protect our house. To think that I laughed along.

        “Dad, where’s your desk?” The factory was an open space about the size of two football fields. Rusting buckets heavy with dark ink were gaping holes in the earth. They smelled of chemicals and oil. Scared but too curious to resist looking into one, I peeked inside the open mouth. A fly was floating atop the ink, along with my disbelieving face.

        “Snapple?” To my far left, my dad leaned back on a torn swivel chair. Looking at his computer, he searched his pockets and pulled out two quarters. He then reached over a dented metal desk and pushed them into the slot of an old vending machine. Its button pad no longer had letters and numbers on them, but my dad pushed them with familiarity. I took the Snapple and drank it with a frozen smile while my dad rummaged through a cabinet. It tasted funny, but at least it was cold.

Four: Dad

        I had never realized what a small man my dad was. I guess I never took a good look at him. At eleven years old, the top of my head reached his eyebrows. By next year, I would be taller than him. Why, I saw him as a tall, young man with shining shoes and a blinding smile, I don’t know. Rather, he was quite the opposite. The bottoms of his pants were frayed and beginning to rip. His legs were short, but strong, due to many years of labor, as were his hands. 

        White scars colored his dark legs. One ran down from his thigh to the bottom of his knee. He liked to tell me and my sister of when he fell off his motorcycle on the freeway and had almost lost a leg. We nodded along with rounded eyes and sweaty palms every time; uncaring that we had heard it a hundred times over. We knew the story was nearing its end once he began whispering “there are seven nails holding this knee together.” My sister and I always screamed in feigned disgust and ran to our rooms laughing. “Nothing will kill me! Not the speed, not the world,” he would scream after our flying hair.

*

       My dad led me into a small room with a naked lightbulb that flickered on and off. It smelled of the wet cement of the aftermath of a water festival. Inside were our snowboards, my old desk, boxes of wires and plastic bags––labeled “Samples”––of Juicy Couture tracksuits. My dad grabbed a few wires and led me back to our car. The door swung closed with a loud bang; laughing at my ignorance. I was silent the entire trip back, the rustling echo of the plastic bags of sparkling tracksuits just like my own sitting in the wet room still in my head. 

The sky was a pretty Californian orange.

***

Birthdays

        Now, my mom had retreated to her room to sleep after setting my dad’s dinner, but I was not willing to give up on my eleventh birthday. The day had passed, but I waited. The cake was already back in the refrigerator, and King of the Hill was still playing in the background. Finally, the door clicked open, and my dad carefully stepped in. His face was dark and his lips were black; he smelled of cigarettes and sweat. Smiling, he handed me a bag. But I was close to tears. Snatching the bag, I stomped into my own room but stopped at the door to look through the hallway one last time. Only to see my dad’s slumped figure in the slight backlight of the living room. He dragged himself to our dining table and turned on the T.V while he ate. I fell asleep on my tear-soaked pillow–– listening to a soft, buzzing conversation between two mysterious men in the T.V.