Lisa Lee

Margaret Cho’s Mother

(a nov­el excerpt)

Margaret Cho’s moth­er had been eaves­drop­ping on me.

I saw you,” she said. “I saw you throw that shov­el and I heard you say the F word. You shouldn’t swear.”

We were in the kitchen. I was stand­ing at the sink, wash­ing dish­es. Margaret Cho’s moth­er had snuck up behind me, pulling on my sleeve. Her hair was big. The tips end­ed just below her ears and poofed out in big curls that didn’t move.

You were spy­ing on me?”

I’m always telling Margaret not to swear too.”

But you were spy­ing. No one was sup­posed to hear me.”

I heard you.”

Well you weren’t sup­posed to!” I raised my voice then, only to bring it back down a moment lat­er. “Mrs. Cho,” I said as I turned off the faucet and removed my mother’s fuch­sia rub­ber gloves, “Why don’t we go to the liv­ing room?” I had turned to face her and I placed my hands on her shoul­ders, pat­ting them gen­tly. As I smoothed down her shoul­der pads, I real­ized how awk­ward it felt to touch her like that, as if I was pat­ting a pup­py, but she didn’t let on that any­thing was out of the ordi­nary. I gen­tly nudged her elbow. “Let’s go,” I said. “Into the liv­ing room we go.”

Margaret Cho’s moth­er didn’t budge. “This is how it start­ed with Margaret,” she said. “First it was all the cussing, then it was the com­e­dy, then drugs. She nev­er went to school like you, you know, she didn’t go to college.”

Well she didn’t need to,” I said. “She had her own T.V. show.” I searched her face, but I couldn’t find what I was look­ing for. “Do you think I just start­ed say­ing bad words? I’m in my thir­ties, Mrs. Cho! I’m almost forty.”

I want you to be a good girl.”

I’m not a girl.”

Then what are you? You’re not a boy. Are you a tomboy? Don’t be a tomboy.”

I gave her a lit­tle shove to get her mov­ing. It didn’t star­tle her a bit. We walked toward the liv­ing room, our bare feet sink­ing into the peach car­pet, and sat down on the peach-flow­ered couch. Margaret Cho’s mother’s feet swung like pen­du­lums, sev­er­al inch­es above the ground. There was nobody in the liv­ing room. Where was everyone?

Where is every­one?” I said.

They’re in Kevin’s room. Having a séance.”

How do they know how to do a séance?”

Your moth­er asked the gypsy.”

You mean the psychic.”

Yes, the psychic.”

Let’s not join them,” I said. “Let’s stay here.”

Yes. I agree. I don’t think a séance will bring your broth­er back.”

He’s not dead,” I said. “He’s just missing.”

I know,” said Margaret Cho’s mother.

How do you know?”

I just know. How do you know?”

Because I’m his sis­ter.” I pulled at the loose threads fray­ing at the knee of my jeans. “Does my moth­er think he’s dead? Is that why she’s hav­ing a séance?”

No I don’t think your moth­er thinks he’s dead. She thinks the séance will help Kevin find his way back home.”

From where?”

Wherever he is.”

There was a pot of bar­ley tea on the cof­fee table, arranged on a tray with teacups and saucers. It was still fresh and warm from post-lunch, so I poured a cup for Margaret Cho’s moth­er and anoth­er for myself.

How’s Margaret?” I asked.

She has a new show, did you know?”

Yeah, I heard.”

It’s going to be her come-back!”

That’s great,” I said. “Is it about sex?”

Margaret Cho’s mother’s face turned red. “I don’t know. It’s about…” her voice trailed off.

It’s called All About Sex,” I said.

I don’t know what it’s called,” said Margaret Cho’s mother.

I just saw her on T.V.,” I said. “She was wear­ing a mil­i­tary uni­form and play­ing a North Korean. She pre­sent­ed some­one an act­ing award.”

I record­ed it on my VCR!” exclaimed Margaret Cho’s moth­er. When she smiled, her eye­glass­es lift­ed a lit­tle with her full cheeks. We took sips of bar­ley tea from our teacups.

I don’t like it when she makes fun of me,” she said quietly.

I wouldn’t think you would.”

And Margaret uses bad words too much.”

She does use a lot of bad words.”

I just want her to be the best.”

At what?”

The best that she can be. At being Margaret.”

I won­dered if she didn’t want Margaret to have con­fi­dence, like my moth­er used to say about me. You seemed too con­fi­dent. If you think I was mean to you, that’s why. I just want­ed you to be the best. But I didn’t want to bring my moth­er into it. She might think I was mak­ing her look bad.

Do you want to go with me to the store?” I said.

Why? Do you need something?”

We’re out of apples,” I said. The fruit plat­ter on the table had plen­ty of slices of oranges, kiwis, and peach­es, but there were no more apples. “We need more fujis,” I said.

Okay,” Margaret Cho’s moth­er said. “Let’s go.” She pushed her­self off the couch, jump­ing onto the ground with both feet plant­ed in uni­son, as if she was land­ing a flip off a pom­mel horse.

Stick it!” I said.


Nothing. You seem very ath­let­ic. Did you do gym­nas­tics as a child?”

I was a pro­fes­sion­al bas­ket­ball play­er in Korea.”

What? You were?”

Well not pro­fes­sion­al pro­fes­sion­al. Almost pro­fes­sion­al! I was famous in Seoul, you know. A lot of women, they weren’t allowed to play bas­ket­ball, but at my col­lege, we had an all girls’ bas­ket­ball team. We played against oth­er female col­leges, and I was the star! I was famous!”

Interesting,” I said. “I had no idea.”

* * *

As we walked out­side to my car, I tried to imag­ine Margaret Cho’s moth­er wear­ing a jer­sey and mesh poly­ester shorts, drib­bling a bas­ket­ball, and shoot­ing it across the court with a flick of her wrist, hop­ping into the air, watch­ing it arc and swish through the hoop, no rim. Margaret Cho’s moth­er was bare­ly five feet tall. If she had been a bas­ket­ball star, she must have had skills. Maybe all the play­ers were the same size.

My car was blocked in the dri­ve­way by two oth­er cars parked hap­haz­ard­ly behind it. “Let’s take mine!” Margaret Cho’s moth­er said. She took her keys out of her purse and pressed a but­ton that made her car beep three times while the head­lights flashed. It was a sil­ver Porsche con­vert­ible. Margaret had bought it for her in the nineties, the year Margaret’s sit­com All-American Girl was on the air. We opened the doors and slid into the slip­pery black seats. Margaret Cho’s moth­er revved the engine. She maneu­vered the car out of the spot expert­ly, and drove the stick so smooth­ly, I could bare­ly tell we were mov­ing. She took tight, effi­cient turns around cor­ners, sit­ting close to the steer­ing wheel with the seat ele­vat­ed so that she had a clear view through the wind­shield. Whoever says Asian women can’t dri­ve has nev­er been tak­en for a dri­ve by Margaret’s mother.

I wish I could be a race car dri­ver!” she said. “I like to watch NASCAR. Do you ever watch it?” I looked at her, then at the road, and back at her propped up against the steer­ing wheel. She was dri­ving the speed lim­it, com­ing to a full stop at stop signs, using her blink­er. Margaret Cho’s moth­er was incred­i­bly competent.

I don’t like how the race car dri­vers are all men, and did you notice they all look the same? It’s like they’re broth­ers, from the same Mormon fam­i­ly. And there’s always some beau­ti­ful blonde babe hand­ing the win­ner a trophy.”

Ha ha! Jane. You’re so seri­ous. Just watch those lit­tle cars dri­ve around that track. So fast! And then they crash. Boom! Pow! Waaaaaaaahhhh—psssshhhh! It’s so fun.” She nev­er took her hands off the wheel.

We drove with the top down. The wind whipped through our hair and flat­tened out my words as I shout­ed direc­tions into town. We bought a bag of apples, a cou­ple baguettes, and stinky cheese. On our way home, the sun was set­ting, cast­ing a sien­na glow over every­thing. We drove through tree-lined back-roads and pulled over beside a vine­yard so that we could watch the sun dis­ap­pear behind the moun­tains. I munched on an apple and gazed at the land­scape. Margaret Cho’s moth­er was dig­ging some­thing out of her purse. It was a joint. She lit it, sucked on it, held her breath, and exhaled, let­ting out a stream of smoke. She passed it to me.

Want some?” she said.

Ummmm,” I said, look­ing quizzi­cal­ly at her.

Oh come one. It’s legal. Margaret gets it for me in Humboldt. She says to me, Mom, this is so strong it’s ridicu­lous.” Margaret Cho’s moth­er took anoth­er hit. “Once they made it legal, I thought, Why not? I feel so much more relaxed now.”

I stared at Margaret Cho’s moth­er hold­ing the joint in my face, her thumb and index fin­ger pinch­ing the butt-end. Why not? I thought. I took a hit and we passed it back and forth a few times. “I’m glad it makes you hap­py,” I said.

Margaret Cho’s moth­er sucked it down to the roach before open­ing the driver’s side door. She leaned over and put out the fad­ing ember in the dirt next to the car. She popped her head back in, closed the door, and low­ered her seat so that she was almost com­plete­ly reclined. I put mine back too. There was no roof because the top was down. We looked up at the sky, which was just begin­ning to dark­en, and the air was warm and dry. I gig­gled to myself about the sight of us, two Korean ladies—one in her six­ties, the oth­er in her thirties—lying down in reclined seats in a con­vert­ible sports car, at the foot of a vine­yard. I could be her daugh­ter, she my moth­er, the two of us enjoy­ing the scenery.

I remem­ber Kevin’s first birth­day dol par­ty. You wouldn’t remem­ber because you weren’t born yet,” Margaret Cho’s moth­er said.

Oh yeah, I saw pic­tures of mine,” I said, remem­ber­ing my fat round face, near­ly a per­fect cir­cle, my col­or­ful han­bok out­fit and peaked black hat. My one-year old self sat in a tiny chair, at a low rec­tan­gu­lar Korean table, com­plete­ly cov­ered with pyra­mids of per­sim­mons, peach­es, apples, oranges, bananas, sev­er­al dif­fer­ent kinds of dumpling-sized red bean paste-filled rice cakes, speck­led with black sesame seeds, dust­ed with crushed red and green and yel­low beans, pocked with dried black beans, food-col­ored in pas­tel green and pink. There was mon­ey too, stacks of bills fanned out on the table.

What did Kevin grab first?” I asked Margaret Cho’s moth­er, remem­ber­ing my moth­er telling me that I had picked a peach and greed­i­ly chomped into it, which was sup­posed to fore­tell that I would be fat and poor.

He took the mon­ey. He nev­er had a big appetite, like you. That’s why you were always the strong one. You nev­er got sick. He was too picky.”

He took the mon­ey? So he was sup­posed to be rich,” I said. “Interesting,” I said, know­ing that Kevin felt bad that he nev­er made as much mon­ey as our father.

We hoped that he would be like Michael Chang.”

He tried,” I said.

Maybe he should have picked the peach, like you, to be strong.”

How did you know that? Did you come to mine?” I assumed that she hadn’t. It wouldn’t have been expect­ed, since I was a girl.

I did! Margaret was there too. Do you remem­ber? She tried to eat the ddeok before the ceremony.”

No. I was one.”

When Kevin was lit­tle, he saved a jar full of pen­nies and he gave it to you. Do you remember?”

Kind of,” I said. “I remem­ber he was mad about it.” We gazed at the sky. One lone cloud moved slow­ly above us, lengthening.

In Korea, peo­ple look up to police offi­cers,” Margaret Cho’s moth­er said.

They do?”

I don’t know if they still do. But they did, a long time ago.”

Oh,” I said. “After he became a cop, he was sur­prised to learn that nobody respects cops. He said he didn’t know. Somebody told him and he was real­ly mad about it. He asked me if I knew and when I told him I did, he was more mad and want­ed to know how I knew.”

Margaret Cho’s moth­er seemed to be nod­ding off. I closed me eyes. A moment lat­er, I felt some­thing touch my left arm. I looked down and saw Margaret Cho’s moth­er tug­ging on my sleeve. She light­ly tapped the back of her hand on my fore­arm, her palm up and open. I put my left hand in it and she closed hers around mine. We held hands like that, across the cen­ter con­sole, flut­ter­ing our eyes at the sky.

* * *

When we got back to the house, the séance was over and my moth­er, Mrs. Chang, Mrs. Park, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Oh, and Mrs. Eom were loung­ing on the couch in the liv­ing room drink­ing tea. The tod­dler was crawl­ing under­neath a chair and the tween was sit­ting on the floor with her legs crossed. Margaret Cho’s moth­er and I waved hel­lo before going into the kitchen to put away the gro­ceries. My moth­er fol­lowed us.

Where did you go?” she demand­ed, look­ing at me, then Margaret Cho’s moth­er, her eyes shift­ing back and forth.

Kevin Kim’s moth­er! We just went to get more apples. See?” She held up the apples that she had just pulled out of the gro­cery bag.

You were gone a long time,” my moth­er said. “What were you doing?” She was look­ing at me now.

We went for a dri­ve. I showed Margaret Cho’s moth­er some scenery. I thought you like it when I do that,” I said.

What did you talk about?” my moth­er asked.

Margaret Cho’s moth­er and I locked eyes. Her eyes looked glossy, but they weren’t red. She had squirt­ed Rohto into her eyes, her head cocked back, before com­ing into the house. I hadn’t, so I had no idea whether I was bleary-eyed. Margaret’s moth­er wait­ed for me to speak.

We talked about Kevin,” I said. “Margaret Cho’s moth­er told me some sto­ries she remem­bered about Kevin from when he was lit­tle, and I told her sto­ries about when he was old­er. That’s all,” I said. “We just talked about Kevin. And we tried to think about where he might be.”

Good,” my moth­er said. “It’s good to think about him. He needs to know that we’re think­ing about him.”

My moth­er sliced up the apples and took them into the liv­ing room. When she was gone, Margaret Cho’s moth­er raised her eye­brows at me. I let out a sigh of relief.

I think she was jeal­ous,” Margaret Cho’s moth­er said.

Of what?”

That we were togeth­er, with­out her.”

I thought she was being para­noid, like maybe we were talk­ing about her.”

That too,” Margaret Cho’s moth­er said.

* * *

When it was dark, every­one final­ly left. Mrs. Chang, Mrs. Park, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Oh, Mrs. Eom, and Margaret Cho’s moth­er had ful­filled their duty in sup­port­ing my moth­er. The house was qui­et. There was no tod­dler play­ing Rachmaninoff on the grand piano. There were no voic­es speak­ing at once, the con­ver­sa­tions over­lap­ping and weav­ing into each oth­er like thread on a loom. The house felt life­less, but smelled of incense, which had been burn­ing in Kevin’s room dur­ing the séance. The sweet, smoky euca­lyp­tus scent waft­ed through the house as my moth­er and I cleaned up. We stacked the dish­es and teacups in the sink and left them there to be tak­en care of lat­er. We wrapped up the left­overs that had not been sent home with our guests, care­ful­ly plac­ing them in the fridge.

How was the séance?” I asked my moth­er. I sat at the kitchen table while my moth­er wiped the countertops.

She rinsed the sponge and squeezed out the soap and crumbs, then placed it in the lit­tle sponge hold­er next to the sink. She turned, and when she was fac­ing me she said, “What did you do?”

About what?”

Did you do something?

About what?”

Why did Kevin leave?”

I don’t know. You think I made him leave?”

You must have done something.”

I haven’t talked to him in five years.”

She was qui­et then. “Maybe Sanghee did some­thing. It must have been Sanghee.”

I don’t think that Sanghee did some­thing to make him leave.”

My moth­er opened a cup­board door. She moved some jars around and slammed the door shut. “Where did he go? Why did he leave?”

I don’t know,” I said. “He’s nev­er been happy.”

Of course he was hap­py. Why wouldn’t he be hap­py? There’s noth­ing wrong with him.”

Yeah, I guess there isn’t.”

I wished for my moth­er that she could have the per­fect son. I wished that my broth­er could have had a dif­fer­ent moth­er. In our fam­i­ly, we impose our will on one anoth­er, gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion, with no one ever get­ting what they want, as if we live a lega­cy of melan­choly, a pub­lic his­tor­i­cal trau­ma made pri­vate and inti­mate. It pulls us apart, but we always come back, braid­ed togeth­er in our need.

I’ll find him,” I said to my moth­er to ease her pain. “Don’t wor­ry. I can find him,” I said. I sound­ed con­fi­dent, but I had no idea where Kevin could be or how I could bring him back.

* * *

Before I left, I vis­it­ed Kevin’s room. My moth­er and her friends had moved a round table from a spare room into the mid­dle of Kevin’s bed­room. Six chairs were pushed in against the table and a white cloth cov­ered the top of it. The table and set of chairs were the only evi­dence of a séance hav­ing had tak­en place in his room.

I sat down in one of the chairs, fold­ed my hands, rest­ing them on the table, and closed my eyes. First, I tried to free my mind of all thoughts, then I tried to pic­ture Kevin’s image in my head, then I won­dered if I should chant. I repeat­ed soft­ly, under my breath, Kevin Kim, Kevin Kim, Kevin Kim, for about a minute before I decid­ed to quit. Nothing hap­pened. I opened my eyes. I scanned the book­case. Spiderman and Archie com­ic books, a Dr. Doolittle box set, the Dune series, a bunch of Guns & Ammo mag­a­zines, a com­plete set of bur­gundy leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica, and three large books on Hawaii. I pulled the Hawaii books off the shelf and flipped through the pages. There were pic­tures of beach­es, sun­sets, palm trees, vol­ca­noes, pineap­ples, taro, coral reefs, under­wa­ter land­scapes with col­or­ful fish­es, ladies in grass skirts danc­ing at luaus, and whole pigs roast­ed in the ground.

Kevin had always loved Hawaii, ever since we went on vaca­tion to Maui as a fam­i­ly when Kevin and I were teenagers. I remem­bered how we had stepped off the plane onto the run­way, the only time I can recall doing that from a com­mer­cial air­plane. Almost imme­di­ate­ly, my hair frizzed up from the humid­i­ty. Three beau­ti­ful women in grass skirts came up to us and placed leis around our necks while say­ing Aloha.

Twice a year, Kevin and Sanghee took a vaca­tion to Hawaii, even though Sanghee always tried to con­vince him to trav­el to Asia, or Europe, or any oth­er destination.

I love the atmos­phere. It’s laid-back, peo­ple are nice, there are a lot of Asians. I feel com­fort­able there,” he said.

There are Asians in Asia,” I said.

I like Hawaii,” he said. “It’s still America, but it doesn’t feel like America.”

I won­dered if he had run away to Hawaii. The pic­ture in my mind seemed so love­ly. Kevin snor­kel­ing, para­sail­ing, surf­ing, explor­ing vol­ca­noes, col­lect­ing obsid­i­an, drink­ing out of a coconut, eat­ing Spam, liv­ing on a pineap­ple farm with a pet pig named Roseanne. I want­ed to go there and find him.

A piece of paper flut­tered out of the book. It was a full-size sheet of white paper fold­ed into thirds, and had been wedged into the bind­ing. The book was open to a vibrant pic­ture of a coral reef, a scu­ba div­er shim­my­ing through the blue water, a school of yel­low fish pass­ing him in the shape of a dia­mond. I opened the piece of paper. There was a sym­bol drawn in the mid­dle of it, with a black ball­point pen. It was a tri­an­gle, with a cir­cle inside it, and a square inside the circle.

What are you doing?” my moth­er said from the door­way. “What’s that?”

Nothing,” I said. “Just some scratch paper.” Quickly, I fold­ed up the piece of paper along its orig­i­nal creas­es and closed the book. I got up and made a move­ment as if to throw the paper into the trashcan.

Put every­thing back where you found it,” my moth­er said. “You know how he gets when peo­ple move his stuff.”

Okay,” I said. I stuffed the piece of paper into my pock­et when my moth­er wasn’t look­ing, her head down as she inspect­ed what appeared to be a stain on the bed­spread. I gath­ered the Hawaii books togeth­er and put them back on the shelf, in the order in which I had found them. My moth­er left the room, tak­ing the bed­spread with her.

I didn’t know how old that piece of paper was, how long ago it had been placed in the book. I didn’t know if it meant any­thing. It had looked crisp, bright white, with no yel­low­ing along the edges. I stood there, next to the book­case, sur­vey­ing the room, look­ing for signs of when Kevin had last vis­it­ed. Weeks ago? Months? Years?

I looked out the win­dow. It was dark. I could see the shad­owy out­lines of trees, the branch­es near­ly touch­ing the win­dow­pane. There was a rustling sound. I nar­rowed my eyes as I tried to locate where the sound came from. I dart­ed across the room and flicked off the light switch. When I stood close to the win­dow, my face an inch from the glass, I tried not to breathe to keep the win­dow from fog­ging up, and as I gazed into the dark­ness, the trees and bush­es were more vis­i­ble than they had been a moment ear­li­er. I heard the rustling again, at the same time that I saw the bam­boo bush vig­or­ous­ly shak­ing, the stalks tall and leafy, hav­ing grown back long ago, after my grand­fa­ther died. I had nev­er under­stood why he had always hacked the bam­boo down to lit­tle pointy stubs. Now length­ened, lush, and green, the bam­boo hid well, though not com­plete­ly, a small, stout body, with famil­iar poofed hair atop an equal­ly famil­iar head. The fig­ure walked toward the win­dow where I stood, and a set of eyes peered straight into my eyes, owl-like, large-rimmed glass­es perched on her face. She broke into a smile.

It was Margaret Cho’s moth­er. She put her hand up and waved. I waved back. I walked over to the back door and let her in.


Lisa Lee’s work has appeared in PloughsharesNorth American ReviewSycamore ReviewGulf Coast, and else­where. She has received fel­low­ships and awards from the Inprint Foundation, Kundiman, and the Center for Fiction. Lisa received an MFA from the University of Houston and a BA from UC Berkeley, and she is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al fel­low in USC’s PhD pro­gram in Literature & Creative Writing.