The following excerpt is from the first chapter of Kay's Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y. K. Choi, a debut novelist. The book, published this year by Simon & Schuster, is the basis for the author's interview with Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer.
I was behind the counter of our convenience store, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, reading the Toronto Star when I heard tires screech and someone screaming obscenities. A horn blasted. I looked out the window.
“Are you freaking crazy?” the driver was yelling. Tico merely kept honking the bicycle horn he wore around his neck as he finished crossing the street.
“Hey, Mare,” he said. “Got anything for me?” “You okay?”
He nodded. He wasn’t much of a talker, which was a good thing; he smelled awful. I handed him the loaf of day-old Wonder Bread my mother kept aside for him. He came in for it every Tuesday at 8 p.m. My mother had a soft spot for him because his eyes reminded her of Gregory Peck’s. She was convinced Tico’s current hardship was a result of bad deeds in a previous life and took pity on him. Tico smiled at me. His teeth were grossly decayed, some were missing. He nodded a quick thank-you and left. I heard his horn again as he crossed to the other side of the street.
I got back to the newspaper. Often a real-life story would trigger ideas I could later weave into a story or a poem. The Titanic had recently been discovered on the bottom of the North Atlantic. While my brother, Josh, was fascinated with the mathematical improbability of its collision with an iceberg, I was intrigued by the idea of hundreds of people trapped in a sinking ship. I imagined mass hysteria, floating bodies draped in wet evening clothes, white faces stargazing through frozen eyes. A dark-haired prostitute I hadn’t seen before walked in and interrupted my daydream. She looked around and strolled over to the gum rack. Her red fishnet tights had a tear just below the hemline of her red miniskirt. So much red, I thought, and wondered if she knew about the rip.
I didn’t recognize her until she handed me a ten-dollar bill to pay for a box of condoms and a pack of Wrigley’s Big Red chewing gum. In an instant I was transported back seven years to Mr. Mills’s fourth-grade class.
It had been an unusually warm October day when I transferred into a new elementary school in Toronto. After years of working in other people’s variety stores and at miscellaneous jobs since emigrating from Korea in 1975, my parents had saved enough money to buy their own store in the centre of the city. I stood shyly in the doorway of the new classroom as the principal informed Mr. Mills of my arrival. Then came the awkward introduction. “Class, this is . . .” I finished Mr. Mills’s sentence for him. His eyes scanned the room. So did mine—there were no Asian students in the class and no empty desks. Mr. Mills rolled his chair by the windows and offered it to me. My cheeks burned as I crossed the room, knowing every eye was summing up my faded hand-me-down purple hooded sweater and jeans, my self-inflicted, uneven bangs, my chopstick-thin body. I sat down, convinced I was unworthy of friendship. The lesson proceeded. A handout was distributed and we were instructed to take out a pencil. I had nothing to write with.
“Delia,” Mr. Mills said, “lend the new girl a pencil.” Remembering names was clearly not his forte.
A pale girl with Goldilocks-blonde hair fumbled through her pencil case and passed me a brand-new pencil that smelled oddly of cinnamon. I was about to thank her when a rough scar on the back of her hand caught my eye. It ran from above the wrist to below the middle finger, a startling blemish on such a delicate hand. When we returned after our recess, I was deeply disappointed that Mr. Mills had arranged a desk and chair for me and that I was now seated towards the back of the class, three desks directly behind Delia.
When I finally got the nerve to ask about the scar a few weeks later, it was too late. Delia had stopped coming to school. I asked Mr. Mills about her, but the only thing he volunteered was that she had moved away. No one seemed to know where. Or care. And I forgot about her.
Almost seven years later, the scar was still a jagged island surrounded by calm waters. I examined Delia’s face as she studied the Jamaican patties at the end of the counter. She looked older than sixteen, but she was biting long fake nails the same shade of red as her outfit. Her once-beautiful blonde hair was now solid black, like mine. I could almost smell the mousse and hairspray that kept it puffed up.
I struggled to stay composed. She didn’t bother to check her change before dropping it into her purse. My heart pounding, I watched her leave the store, then dashed to the door to see where she was headed. She didn’t go far. She was still standing at our corner four hours later when I crept into my brother’s room to peek out his window.
I was thankful Josh was a deep sleeper. Had he been awake, I might casually have asked him if he’d noticed the new girl working the corner. Then I had the idea to check his log, kept hidden behind his bookcase. I’d found the spiral notebook last year when I was snooping. It recorded how long it took a prostitute to return to the corner after being picked up. Josh had turned his observations into a science. Because he spent so much time tending the cash register, he noted what brand of condoms each prostitute preferred and what cigarettes she smoked. He’d even assigned the girls names: Trixie, Babe, Suzie X.
I took the notebook to the bathroom, the only place I could get away with having a light on at that late hour. There she was: “Scarlet: white, 5'5", black hair, grey eyes, scar on hand, ears pierced five times left, three times right . . . fave gum, Wrigley’s Big Red.”
Where had she been for the past seven years? How had she ended up working this corner?
Excerpted from Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety Copyright © 2016 by Ann Y.K. Choi. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster Canada, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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