The Jim Archives
Two Chapters from a Novella-in-Progress
  • The Blues for Miss Patty
  • Through Hollow Lands and Hilly Lands
  • excerpts from Requiem for a Turnip Queen

    ...scenes from the continuing story of the Lee family:

    Stephen Lee, a fortysomething second generation Chinese American, raised in Park Ridge, Pennsylvania, now living in Chicago and working in the engineering trade. Recently divorced from...

    Patty Lee (née Wei), fellow second gen Chinese American, Stephen's college sweetheart, then wife. After the divorce, moved to California, where...

    Regina Lee, daughter of the above, is in her senior year of college. As the story opens, she is about to fly to Chicago to spend spring break with her father. Unbenownst to her, she is carrying documents which will force Stephen to come clean about...

    the late Sara Lafleur, Stephen's childhood friend, winner of the 1967 Tri-State Turnip Growers' Beauty Pageant, since killed in a car crash. He wanted her for his own, but she was involved with...

    Kenneth (Kenny) D'Amico, another high school friend of Stephen's. Went off to college in Maryland with Sara; later married, then mourned her.

    The Blues for Miss Patty

    Patty Lee sank back in the chair by Gate 26, looked out at the runway where her daughter's plane was taxiing for takeoff. Perhaps she'd been unfair to draft Regina into unwitting messenger duty, but that decision was long past, and she felt now as she had when, as a child, distant relatives were passing through the house—nervous, expectant, knowing that something was going to happen; having no idea as to the nature of that something, but dying for the lack of it all the same. She tried to think back; it had been years since she'd felt that way. That was a young person's feeling, she thought. But she didn't feel young.

    When she had been young and felt young, she had claimed that feeling for her own one evening in late spring, when she had undertaken the one act of boldness in her entire adolescence.

    She had commandeered her father's beat-up Dodge Pioneer for the deed. Zooming obliviously through the South Jersey night, running red lights the length of Route 70, she made her way to the East Middlebrook Shopping Center, where her down-the-street neighbor Mrs. Baker was waiting.

    "You don't have to pay me if it doesn't work out," the round gray-haired woman said with a conspiratorial sweetness, smoothing the two cellophane-wrapped bundles she'd laid on the rear seat. "But I wish you all the best, Patricia."

    "Thanks, Mrs. B."—and a minute later she was pulling away from the storefront and again on the road. The first half of the journey was over, but the second half—the important half—was now underway, and she steeled herself for its conclusion.

    Patty jammed on the brakes and the car jerked to a stop in front of 236 Henderson Drive. She gave the front door a hard look, trying to collect her thoughts. The houses were nicer in this part of town. Bigger lawns, two-car garages. This particular house she'd been inside once before, delivering homework to a friend from school who was sick with the chicken pox.

    Terry. Terence Arthur Samuels, Jr. They both played clarinet in the marching band. Neither had much musical talent, but they never missed a step when the band formed the letters of "Middlebrook" on the field at halftime. Terry was tall and thin—hopelessly pale, Patty thought, but approaching awkwardly handsome from the awkward side. He was pretty shy, too, but he was the only boy at school with whom she ever had what she could call conversations. Whenever she thought about him—and lately those thoughts had grown more frequent—she would tell herself, He's a sweet guy who just needs to be cared about.

    And so she had come to his door this day unannounced, unexpected, to play the princess to his frog, allowing herself to hope that that had been what he had wanted all along. Her legs dragged as she reached the front steps. She was hyperventilating, and her heart felt three sizes too big for her chest. She raised the door knocker and banged it down three times. A few seconds later, Terry appeared.

    "Oh, hi Patty. What brings you here?" There was no surprise in his voice; he seemed relaxed to the point of somnolence.

    She tried to compose herself. At least he hadn't said "What do you want?"; that was a good thing. She inhaled deeply and parted her lips to form the first syllable of her prepared speech, but something caught in her throat, and she panicked and wound up blurting out:

    "Go to the prom with me."

    "The prom?" he said calmly, reflectively. "Isn't that tonight?"

    "Yeah, tonight, it's, it is, it's tonight" she said, the words spilling out almost at random.

    "Gee, Patty...that's really flattering." He smiled weakly. "But I don't think I can go."

    "Why not?" She cringed as she heard the edge of anger in her voice.

    "Well...," he looked at some shrubs to avoid meeting her gaze, "well, I don't have a ticket...I don't have anything to wear, either."

    "Here," she said hurriedly, handing him a small blue card with black script lettering, "here's your ticket. Your tux is in the car."

    He looked dumbfounded. "Is it my size?" he asked distractedly.

    "The jacket's a 38 like your band uniform," she said. "The pants adjust."

    He stared at the ground with his mouth open. At length he gathered himself and began, "'re my friend, and I like you a lot...just not in that way, you know?"

    She swallowed hard and forced herself to answer, "It doesn't have to be like that—some people go just as friends...," but she could feel her energy draining with each word. The war was lost; this last battle was for her pride.

    "I know." He was sullen, lifeless. She wouldn't even get the satisfaction of a lively argument. "But I always feel so lost at dances and things. That kind of stuff just isn't for me. It's not your fault, Patty...I hope you understand."

    A half hour later she was home, back in her room, having somehow managed to elude her parents on her way in.

    She locked the door, flopped onto her bed, and sobbed convulsively into her pillow. This was what she got. She'd stopped daydreaming, yanked herself out of the house, taken real action in the real world, and this was what she got. The thought repeated itself over and over until her head was all throbbing numbness.

    They were looking at her. They were all looking at her and she could see their eyes. Her parents, who wanted her to stick to her own, yet stranded her in a sea of white faces to fend for herself without so much as an instruction pamphlet. Old Mrs. Baker, who'd never had a daughter of her own; she'd be crushed when Patty told her the boy said no. Cousin Clara, off at Barnard now, who'd told her once through a cynical grin: "There's no excuse for being lonely, Trish. You just have to play along. Use them before they can use you." It didn't seem right; there had to be some other way. Yet Clara never lacked for boys' attention, and it was no use arguing with success.

    Patty flipped on the radio absentmindedly and listened to a commercial for Freshen mouthwash ("'Freshen'—because that special someone may be just around the corner"), and then the dj announced it was the All-Request Hour.

    "This next one goes out to Susan from Bobby, on their three-month anniversary. How touching." The voice took a sardonic turn: "Let's see if you're still dedicating songs to her after three years, kid."

    The music started and Patty recognized the song, but found herself paying attention to the words for the first time.

    Well, it's been building up inside of me
    for oh I don't know how long.
    I don't know why but I keep thinking
    something's bound to go wrong...
    She must have heard "Don't Worry Baby" a dozen times before, but only now did she realize that the singer's girl was telling him not to worry, not the other way around. The harmonies buoyed her, and she felt as though she were coming to understand something simple yet extraordinary. Love was power. Love was the simple, extraordinary power to bring something good into existence, to will happiness into being for another person. Her lack of that power had caused the humiliation with Terry; it was what she now craved above all else.

    Patty got up slowly and shuffled hazily to a large cardboard box in the far corner of the room. She fished out a back issue of Teenbeat, one with a feature story entitled "What Next for Brian and the Boys?" There was a full-page headshot of Brian Wilson accompanying the piece, and she rested her eyes upon it, slowly tracing each curve of his face. What did it matter that he was married and lived three thousand miles away? This was the face of understanding. There were men who cared in the world, and this was the way they looked.


    It would be another four years before Patty would feel again what she felt that night.

    By that time, she was a senior in college, finishing up her science requirement in Chem 1. Ted Larson was her assigned lab partner. At the first class meeting, he told her he was from Southern California and her eyes lit up. She pictured him strolling across a beach, surfboard in tow, a light breeze playing through his sandy brown hair.

    "Have you ever been there?" he asked.

    "No...," she started tentatively, "I guess I only know it from movies and pop songs...but I've always wanted to visit, just never had the chance."

    "Believe me, you're not missing much."

    Ted was another senior; for three years he had been so engrossed in mathematics that he, too, was only now taking care of his other requirements.

    "I just couldn't stomach the practicality of it," he'd said when Patty asked why he hadn't taken a science class sooner. "With math, there's a purity, an incorruptibility.... You don't see people cribbing off their math homework to make Molotov cocktails."

    Patty had been puzzled at first—how could they have made the H-bomb without mathematicians?—but in the end, the confidence with which he spoke won out in her mind. If he felt that strongly, there must have been something to it....

    And, as they worked together for three hours each Tuesday—or rather, as he took charge of things, giving orders ("Move it closer to the yourself...that's it...") which she, in her scientific anxiety, gladly welcomed—that thought was joined by another: that Ted told her what to do because he knew what was best for her. So she hadn't been completely shocked when he began to remark how interesting the pattern of her earrings was, or compliment her on her new hairstyle. And when he finally asked if she was "seeing anyone," she stopped herself in mid-reflex: "Well, there's this guy that I...but it's nothing serious, really." She had to lie to give herself time to think.

    With a dinner invitation hers for the accepting, she turned the matter over in her mind. For all his good-naturedness and the two years they'd been together, Steve had never made her feel so—what was the word? Valuable. Of great worth. She thought and thought but the exact reason why Ted made her feel that way remained just beyond her grasp. Yet Patty had never felt more valuable in her life.

    With Steve she had security; with Ted there was the promise of excitement—she could feel it all over, in her hair and glasses even—and finally she told herself that no unexciting life could ever be a happy one. A talk with her roommate sealed it.

    "Every woman should have that chance," Jen had said. And with that, Patty was ready to seize the opportunity to be with the one man who understood precisely what she needed.

    The following Tuesday, Ted was already in chem lab setting up the week's experiment when Patty entered the room. She would tell him that day; she would tell him yes. At the far end of the lab, he held a test tube up to the light, examining its powdery white contents, and it seemed to Patty that when the late afternoon sun caught the side of his face at a certain angle, he could almost pass for a thinner, paler Brian Wilson.


    Two weeks later she was noticing things, little things—Ted's annoying habit of laughing too long at his own jokes; the way, when their eyes met, he would keep looking at her and looking at her, past the point of embarrassment until finally she would feel somehow violated. Things she could have forgiven in Steve, she thought; but then, Steve wasn't like that to begin with, so there would have been no need.

    What really disturbed her, though, was one instance when Ted came up from behind and put his arm around her shoulder, then suddenly recoiled as if startled by something ominous in its namelessness. It had made her feel somehow fraudulent, unclean.

    Each hour brought more brooding over her decision. How was it that she had found Ted so exciting? Was the excitement only there when she could have both him and Steve? That thought lingered until, it seemed to Patty, it had lodged in her stomach and was starting to make her nauseous. After a few days, it had gotten so bad that she made herself go to the student health clinic.

    "Describe your symptoms...and how long do you say it's been like this...have you been on any you had intercourse, long ago?"

    And Patty knew. When the initial shock had dissipated, her mind was flooded with questions. What could she do now? At least she hadn't slept with Ted, but that was the only certainty. Could she go back to Steve? Did she want to? Would he have her back even if she wanted to?

    At last she decided: she would go to Steve and tell him what had happened, and his response would let her know what to do. Not that she would bend to his will, necessarily, but, in a way that was maddeningly vague yet frighteningly real, it had dawned on her that until she knew how he felt, she wouldn't know how she felt herself.

    Patty was nervous. She'd heard through her roommate that Steve was in bad shape. He was losing weight. He'd been missing class a lot, and when he did show up he looked like he'd just crawled out of bed. With him in that condition, who knew what to expect?

    She asked Jennifer to talk to Steve first, to sound him out while Patty, unbeknownst to him, waited outside, to be called in to join them if the right moment should arise. She knelt down in the grass under the living room window of Apartment 1B as Jennifer knocked and Steve let her in.

    Her mind swelled with the ricocheting sounds of her last words with him. Steve, I want us to stay friends...What?... We could have lunch sometime...Just who do you think you're talking to? I don't beg for table scraps.... Then all was a furious blank.

    At first, all she could hear from inside was a few stray syllables of a high-pitched voice followed by a few muted rumblings of a low one, until suddenly Steve's voice erupted with a fierce clarity:

    "Forever! That bitch—she said she'd be with me forever! So tell me, Jen, how long is forever in dog years?!"

    Patty recoiled but couldn't stop listening, and the anger in his voice dissolved into quiet sobs. She could barely make out the words that followed:

    "Jesus, everything I touch turns to shit...."

    Her feet moved—involuntarily, it seemed—and she found herself taking tentative steps towards the entrance, then pushing back the half-open door to the apartment. Through her own burning tears she could see that, despite the sobbing, his face was rigid and unyielding—but only for that instant before he realized she was there and crying.

    "God, Patty...what's wrong?" Steve's voice, now pliant, supple, floated under her, held her steady, kept her from dissolving into so much lukewarm saltwater. "You were listening."

    She nodded.

    "I didn't mean those things...." He would have continued, but she raised a finger to her lips and drew him close with her free arm.

    "I know," she whispered.

    And for one impossibly perfect moment she felt weightless—cared for, valued, at last in possession of the power that was love.


    There was a movie she'd seen once, back in high school, back when she'd sneak out of the house and get a charge just sitting there in the crowd and feeling she was a part of something. Even if it was nothing more than five hundred people engaged in a collective squandering of time and money. Something.

    The movie was called Best in Breed, and Patty thought of it now as she sat in the airport, her daughter's flight a half-hour gone. That long ago evening had been one of those wastes; in fact, it may have been the worst film she had ever paid to see.

    She had only gone because her favorite actress, Roberta Caldwell, was starring in the picture, playing, as usual, a beautiful but hopelessly naïve young woman ensnared by a scheming rogue in gentleman's clothing. And somehow, as usual, the lovely Roberta managed to pull off a miraculous hairbreadth escape by the middle of the final reel, leaving ample time for a reconciliation with the clean-living hometown lad who had always loved her and with whom, subconsciously, she had always been in love herself.

    The acting was stiff, the direction nonexistent, and the screenplay seemed the work of a ten-year-old, but there was one scene that Patty never forgot—when Roberta's character was talking to her mother just before running off with the champion dog trainer.

    The mother was pleading: "You're so young and so foolish, child. Tell me, do you know exactly what you want?"

    "Yes, Mother, yes!" Roberta exclaimed. "I want to be with him—always!"

    The mother looked away, sighing slowly, heavily. "The worst thing in the world is to know exactly what you want."

    "Because then you might not get it—I know, Mother, but it's right within my grasp this time, and I—"

    "No, my daughter," she shook her head and inhaled deeply, as if summoning all the resources of her age and experience. "Far worse than not getting what you want is to get what you want and then lose it."

    She took the girl's hand in her own. "And worst of all is to get what you want, and keep it, and still be unhappy."

    Through Hollow Lands and Hilly Lands

    His daughter was sleeping now, finally. She'd been crying but he'd had no words of comfort for her; he'd felt in need of comforting himself. What right had he had to tell Regina the truth about his life with her mother? And yet, what choice had there been? Stephen fixed himself a Scotch and soda, a unilateral toast to blissful ignorance.

    A dream of perfect happiness had taken shape years before in his boy's mind, and he returned to it now, as in other times of regret or confusion. He saw himself at twenty, in an unguarded moment, explaining to Patty the marvelous simplicity of it.

    "When it's Christmastime and you're down in the city and everything's lit up like the whole world's all there in front of you and you can have your pick of anything in it—that's what it is to be alive."

    During senior year, he'd made the mistake of putting that dream to the test. The weekend after fall semester finals were over, they'd made their pilgrimage across the river into Philadelphia.

    It was something he'd had to do. Patty was drifting from him—slowly, gradually, but unmistakably. She'd gotten apprehensive about staying over at his place; their conversations were getting shorter and shorter, and her voice with him rarely varied from a cool monotone. Yet she was still the one person he could tell about Christmas in the city, as pathetically clichéd as he knew it was. He knew he could tell her and she wouldn't cringe, and that knowing was what separated him from the mass of lonely souls in the universe.

    But as they wandered along Market Street through a light snow Stephen realized it wasn't enough. Patty seemed entirely preoccupied; there was a faint smile on her lips, but it seemed to him that she really didn't want to be there, yet—what was worse—she didn't feel strongly enough to put up a fight. This was the woman he loved; the woman he would have asked to marry him if he'd thought she'd say yes.

    "How 'bout we go inside Wanamaker's? Maybe the organist is playing," he said, and Patty turned to him and nodded, wearing the same blank smile. Twenty minutes and an interminable medley of "Hey Jude" and "Winter Wonderland" later, nothing had changed. A crowd of people headed out into the street and they followed.

    "Is something the matter?" he said finally, his voice one part concern, two parts exasperation.

    "No, why?"

    "It's just that you don't seem all there." He grimaced.

    "Well, I guess I'm still wound up from finals. That Chem exam was a killer."

    "Oh...." He bowed his head in defeat. Whatever she was in, he couldn't pull her out. "You know...," he said slowly, "I'm feeling really spent. You mind if we head back?"

    "Already?" There was the barest trace of surprise in her voice. "Well...can we check out the sale at Gimbels first? I saw their ad in the paper. They've got these gloves I want to look at."

    "Sure, fine...."

    They turned and headed east on Market, linking arms, but not looking at each other.

    "Gloves...," Stephen thought.

    He peered into the faces of the people walking past, catching half-grins with a faint edge of hardness—it must have been the raw weather. Or maybe those people hadn't looked closely enough and were jealous of what they took to be another happy couple.

    So he figured, until, at the 10th Street intersection, he noticed something. For a block or more they'd been following a young black man and a young white woman holding mittened hands. He could only see the backs of their heads—the short crop of black hair of the one, the wavy shoulder-length brown hair of the other—but he couldn't help noticing the way they kept looking at each other. So in love?, he wondered, or so aware of how the people in the street were looking at them?

    Stephen felt a sudden urge to quicken his pace and pass in front of the couple to see the expressions on their faces, but quickly beat it back. They deserved their privacy.

    His stomach tightened as he saw some people's scowls turn to hard grins as their eyes passed from the other couple to himself and Patty.

    He trembled and instinctively turned to her. As she looked at him, a spasm of pain shot across her face, and he flushed with the hope that she would tell him what was really on her mind. But it died when her words seemed to concern the other couple:

    "It must be tough."


    "It must be tough being like them." She motioned discreetly with her elbow. "You know, in a mixed relationship."

    "Oh. Yeah, you're must be."

    Somewhere, he thought, at that very moment, in Baltimore or else back in Park Ridge, Kenny D'Amico was walking down the street with Sara Lafleur on his arm, not thinking these thoughts. Not having to. And in his mind he was sure that Kenny had from Sara what he would have killed to have from Patty—her undivided attention.

    "These gloves are worn," Patty said, looking down at her fingers.

    "Will you stop it with the gloves already?!"

    "Is something wrong?" It was the most inflection he'd heard in her voice all day.

    "Forget it. Just forget it."

    She gave him a look of mock annoyance, then turned away.

    Gloves, he thought. It took a newspaper ad to get her excited. It was as if she had to be told what to want.

    That was the key to it, the wanting.

    But what did Stephen want, really? What did he want, and why, and what would he give for it? Patty, he told himself—he wanted to be with her, to be left alone with her, because when she was there, the world couldn't touch him. But something had gone wrong; she was with him now, and the world was closing in. She couldn't, or wouldn't, keep it away. Would Sara abandon me like this?, he began to wonder—but his eyes seized on the young couple before him, and his throat constricted with a sudden realization.

    It was a trap. They told you what to want, and you listened, because when you're young, you listen. You read it in the papers and magazines and watched it on TV until there was no mistaking exactly what it was you were supposed to want. But the trick was they only told you to want what you didn't have. What you couldn't have. What they wouldn't let you have. And it was only by getting what they wouldn't let you have that you could earn their respect. Or even your own. But he didn't have to look into the face of the young black man to know that the wages of respect was contempt.

    All of his wondering about Patty had reached an end. It was simple. She didn't want him. Perhaps she had once, but now she didn't. And she didn't want him because, of all the things they had ever been told, they had never been told to want each other, and they had never been told to want each other because they had never been told to want themselves.

    Yet.... Maybe it was true, but it wasn't that simple. Sara—he knew her; he cared about her because of who she was, not what she was. But how did he know? Deep down, how could he know?

    The deepest terror, it seemed to him, lay in the not knowing, not knowing the end of what they wanted you to want from the start of what you yourself wanted. Because you had listened and now it was more than what you wanted, it was who you were.

    However he looked at it, it was still a trap. And, glancing once more at Patty's distant smile, he knew he was facing it alone.


    When Patty came back, when she appeared at his door that day in February, his first reaction was to comfort her, and, hurt as he had been, he knew it was the decent thing to do. But even as he held her close, he was thinking of the future, wondering if there even was a future for them, what shape it could possibly take.

    They were silent as they held each other—the way it should always be, he thought. The best times with Patty had been filled with a deep stillness, the stillness of peace, of acceptance, of the superfluousness of explanation. Now, though, those stillnesses would be filled with the anxious terror that what had happened would happen again.


    Unless, he thought, there could be something they both wanted, and wanted so much that all other wants would fade into nothing. But whatever it was, it couldn't be each other; that wasn't enough, and it never would be enough. As he arrived at that thought, she broke her silence.

    "Steve, I need to tell you something." She spoke softly, her voice crackling on the edge between a whisper and full-throated speech.

    "Not now," he said, "you don't have to say anything."

    "No, I want to." She pulled back from him to look in his eyes.


    "I'm...," there was a nervous, frightened look on her face, and she forced her words out quickly, almost angrily: "Steve, I'm pregnant."

    He froze; he could feel his eyes sinking back in his head. He struggled against the feeling, knowing that he had to make some kind of response, but unable to get his mouth open.

    The silence made her frantic. Patty spoke in frenzied bursts: "Steve, I—that's not why—that's not the reason—you're the one I want, Steve—you're the man I love."

    As he stood, unable to speak, the future unfolded in his mind. Yes, there would be a baby, and they would love it, but more than loving it, they would want it. Each individually, and both together. And most of all, because Patty would want it, even if she didn't want him, she would want to stay.

    "It's okay," he said at last, breathless, burying his face in her hair. "It's okay...."


    He'd tried to tell his daughter, but couldn't. He had always known that one day he'd have to tell her the whole story, but had never figured that day would come so soon. For a solid hour, Regina had sat before him seeking the truth and all he could do was mumble a few words about the difference between loving a woman and being able to live with her.

    When he gathered himself for one last try at a proper explanation, it still seemed incomplete to him; almost incoherent.

    "Let me put it another way, Regina. When I was in the fourth grade, my class was studying the American Revolution, and at the end of the term we took a field trip to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, that whole area.

    "Well, it was mid-December and our bus went straight down Market from City Hall, past John Wanamaker and Lit Brothers and Strawbridge's, all the stores with all their decorations out and all the people walking around smiling at each other. It was like some stupid Norman Rockwell painting, but back then I thought it was the most incredible thing, and I told myself I'd go back someday when I was older, and then I'd really feel a part of it.

    "And I did go back. I went back plenty of times, but all it was was a dirty, cold mess. And I could never figure how I ever saw it any differently. Does that make sense?"

    She gave him a puzzled look, as much as to say, "No, does it make sense to you?"

    "Reggie, let me think it over," he said, watching as she stopped fighting her drowsiness, let her eyelids fall, and sank deeper into the sofa. "I just need time. I'll explain it to you—I will."

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