FIRST DAY OF WORK is an excerpt from The Evening Hero, by Marie Myung-Ok Lee. Published in May 2022, The Evening Hero was chosen for “Best of 2022” by both Oprah and Real Simple Magazines, among others. Her young adult novel, Finding My Voice, is considered to be the first contemporary-set YA with an Asian protagonist. She has written for The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, The Nation, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and Salon. She teaches fiction at Columbia where she is Writer in Residence. The essay series she did for Slate on treating her son with autism with cannabis was featured in Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN series, “Weed.”
FIRST DAY OF WORK
Yungman applied himself to carefully sponging away a gravy splotch from the lapel of his suit. In this unfamiliar room, it was easy for him to pretend he was a young father again, his son clasping a stuffed animal to his chest, wandering into the bathroom to stare worshipfully up at him as he readied himself for work.
“Excuse me, Sir—do you want to borrow a pair of my shoes?” Einstein said now. He was eyeing Yungman’s white loafers, placed at the ready by the door.
“I just need to give them a quick wipe. Do you have a shoe cloth?” “Sir, actually, how about a pair of my oxblood brogues?”
“Is it that disreputable to wear white after Labor Day?” Yungman asked, half joking. “Does this call into question my clinical decision- making?”
“Let’s just say those shoes are a little . . . nonstandard. I mean, those chunky heels . . .” Einstein himself was wearing high leather sneakers that looked like dual Aircasts for his ankles. Again, inside the house! Yungman liked his loafers. They slipped on and off easily. They had a gold ornament in the front, looking a little like the bit of a horse’s bridle. The substantial heel gave him a nice lift. Overall, the shoe had a nice design, its tongue curved at the top like a gladiator’s helmet. He’d been so proud buying these dressy shoes in Korea. White collar, white coat, white shoes. As close to being a white American as he could possibly get, he’d thought at the time.
However, come to think of it, he hadn’t seen anyone else wear this kind of shoe here in the actual America.
Einstein handed him the oxblood brogues, redolent of pungent cedar shoe trees. He stood there while Yungman tried them on. Even though Einstein’s feet were a half size bigger, the tapered style pinched. But now, his feet trussed by the skinny laces, he was committed. His son smiled approvingly as Yungman walked gingerly, unfamiliarly downstairs, where a delightful scent of batter was wafting up.
Marni was dressed in tight yoga clothes that gave off a kind of iridescent sheen. Their waffle maker was the kind they had at hotel buffets, an antigravity clamshell that dropped the finished product into the waiting plate, with no handling of hot objects needed. When Einstein was little, Yungman used to try to make waffles on Sunday mornings, establish a family tradition. Einstein would stand up on his chair and, in defiance of Yungman’s warning to keep away, naughtily reach toward the waffle iron’s outer surface. “Hot? Hot?” It became almost a game, one that Yungman didn’t have the time or inclination to play. He had enough to worry about—getting the waffles done, the frozen sausages made, the Aunt Jemima on the table and everything done in time to hustle them off to church while wondering which one of his patients would be in labor by the end of the sermon. One day, when Einstein teasingly probed his chubby finger a little too close to the steaming lip of the iron, Yungman helped it along the rest of the way. The tiny finger had blistered immediately. Einstein screamed. “I said it’s hot! This is what happens when you don’t listen to your father!” Yungman had screamed back. His son wouldn’t have lasted a day trekking on foot to Seoul during the war. And yet, Yungman felt the rebuke now, in the mere selection of their house appliances. Undoubtedly Einstein had told all this to Marni, probably characterizing it as a lasting “childhood trauma,” language he’d learned from the therapist he’d been seeing since college.
“We’d better get going,” Einstein said. The waffles weren’t for Yungman anyway. He wondered about his breakfast, but wouldn’t trouble them to ask.
Einstein’s new car, a Military Utility Recreational Vehicle, spanned almost a full highway lane. He seemed to enjoy the reactions—surprise, resentment, curiosity—from drivers and pedestrians alike at this ten-foot-tall armored vehicle with a rotating gun on top. A MURV.
Despite the vehicle’s size, its giant oblong gas reservoirs crowded the inside. Yungman felt something prodding his back. He fished out a bag of blackening pepperoni.
“Oh, that’s Reggie’s.” Einstein threw it merrily out the window. “He likes to eat his ’roni in the car.”
THE MALL OF AMERICA
The Biggest Mall in the Nation!
It didn’t look as imposing as Yungman remembered. What drew his attention now was the quartz-crystal-shaped spire seemingly growing out of the ground next to it. In gold letters across its base was written
~ The HoSPAtal ~ A Passion for Excellence ~
The road looked like it was going to run right through the quartz, but then a door opened. It shut after they’d driven through.
“Like the Bat Cave!” Einstein said with boyish glee.
~ MDiety PARKING~
“Isn’t that cute?” said Einstein. “Here, physicians are ‘MDieties’— get it?”
A young dark-eyed man took his keys. “Good morning, Dr. Kwak.” “Hey, thanks, José,” Einstein said.
“It’s Benedicto,” the man said. “José left two weeks ago.” “Sorry.”
They were in the basement. Einstein took Yungman to an elevator that said “To SUB Basement.”
One door said:
~ Mall-Based Medical Retail Outlet Human Capital Department
~ Caution: Ionizing Radiation in Use!
“Ready to be a doctor of the future?” Einstein asked, thankfully taking him to the door that did not have the universal sign for radiation on it. It opened to a waiting room with a few dozen people seated on hard chairs. Facing them were an additional two doors: PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIANS and SPECIALISTS. A man poked his head out of PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIANS. “Nygaard? Dr. Soren Nygaard here?”
“Just answer to your name when you’re called,” Einstein said. “I called ahead and put you in the queue.”
The SPECIALISTS door listed:
Psychiatry Ophthalmology Neurology
Yungman was pleased—OB-GYN at Horse’s Breath General was considered primary, not specialty, care, which he always thought was erroneous, as surgery went beyond primary care. He was every bit the surgeon Mitzner was.
“I have to get going; I’ll call you later.” Einstein’s body was already facing away. He paused. “Oh, wait—you don’t have a cell phone.” For a moment a look of uncertainty, of dawning panic, crossed his face. “I won’t know where you are.”
Yungman and his son were separating in the same building, not on different sides of the ocean. “Hmm,” Einstein said, that same troubled look from his Sears baby portrait. “Hmm.” If his son blanched at the thought of being out of touch with his father for an hour, Yungman thought, could Einstein even begin to fathom what it was like to be one of the Korean “separated and scattered families” who were once each other’s dearest hearts and now were on different sides of a military border, not even knowing who was alive and who was dead?
“Sir?” said Einstein. “Are you all right?”
Yungman blinked, the waiting room coming back into focus. “I’m fine. I was just thinking . . .”
“About . . . perhaps it’s time to consider getting a cell phone.”
“I’ve been telling you that for ages!” Einstein laughed cathartically. “I’ll help you this weekend. Then you can also play games, like Sudoku—neuroplasticity and all that. Anyway, once you’re in the SANUS ‘ecosystem,’ you’ll be easily trackable via my SANUSwatch.”
“You’re that confident I’ll get the job?”
“Oh ya, you’re my father.” He beamed and popped the sleeve on his leather flight jacket to show Yungman a watch with a bunch of buttons on a camouflage band that echoed his tank-car.
“The customizing was a birthday splurge.” At the top of the face, where Yungman’s watch said “Elgin,” Einstein’s said “~SANUS~” and featured a background of a caduceus with the double snakes. “We can track the positions of Retailicinists in the mall. I think you get some kind of RFID chip like they use for pets in your watch. I don’t think they’d chip you internally, ha ha. But take my card just in case. You can always call me.”
The SPECIALISTS door opened. A middle-aged woman, a swatch of her curly hair dyed a brilliant SeaWorld blue, looked with recognition at the two men. “Dr. Kwak, can I talk to you?” Maybe she was a colleague of Einstein’s, Yungman thought.
“Which one?” Yungman said.
“How am I supposed to know?” she said. “Whichever one that’s looking for a job.”
Einstein gave him a thumbs-up and mouthed “You’ll be great!” And then he disappeared.
Yungman had to take an employment test. He always did well on tests.
Do you have any medical board violations or pending cases? Is your Minnesota license current?
Are there any arrest warrants out for you, or have you ever been convicted of a felony or spent any time in jail?
Are you certified by the American Board of Obstetrics & Gyne- cology?
(What that had to do with administering vaccines he didn’t know, but he obediently answered.)
The blue-haired lady “graded” his test and, apparently satisfied, sent him down the hall to another nondescript room with another middle-aged woman, with mouse-gray hair. He put his résumé down on the desk in front of her—Reggie had helped him put it together last night on the computer. She didn’t even glance at it and instead asked to see his Minnesota license, his ACOG membership, and his ABOG certification.
“And you don’t have any tremor conditions, like Parkinson’s?” “Of course not!” He was affronted. “I’m a surgeon!”
“No medical board or medical malpractice actions?” “No!”
She took his fingerprints. Why, again, he didn’t know.
Yungman was then given an address: a floor, a wing, a sector, a door number. He traversed a skyway to the Mall and walked for what seemed like miles past Earring Pagoda, Orange Julius, three GAPs, I Lefse My Heart in Minnesota, Victoria’s Secret, Only in Minnesota, Forever 21—all fronted with riot gates, oddly, like they had in Korea when demonstrations were commonplace. He saw no one as he strode past Nickelodeon Universe, manic characters frozen in midair, roller coasters eerily stilled on their tracks. Door 12-0003 was a dark store- front, barred gate also in place, across from a gaudy mega-restaurant, the Rainforest Cafe.
Through the ambient light, he spied a single counter, like the check-in at an airline’s gate. Next to the counter, the letters ATM glowed. He rattled the gate and called hello. From behind the counter, a dark-haired young woman detached from the gloom and motioned for him to go down the side hall, where there was a small back door into the store.
“You’re late,” she said, exasperated. “You know it’s Black Friday, right?”
She had a slight, unplaceable accent. Belarus? Moldova? Romania? She took his employment sheet and slipped it into a machine that sat behind the reception counter. Out popped a silicone wristband with a tiny holographic disc, which she then held underneath what looked like a supermarket price scanner.
Y KWAK read the LED display in cubular font.
“Scan in; it starts the clock.” She gave him a clip-on badge that said TRAINEE (SANUSSEC LEVEL 0). Hers said TRAINER (SANUSSEC LEVEL 2).
In the very back of the place was a small storeroom, its shelves piled with inventory. In the middle, on a folding table, a woman lay naked from the waist down, in lithotomy position, her head propped up with one hand so she could check her phone. Yungman tried not to stare.
“Hi!” she chirped from the table.
“Er, hello,” Yungman said back. “Nice to see you.”
“This is Jenny, our standardized customer—they get one free treatment for volunteering.”
“Why do we need a standardized patient?” he asked. True, normally Maude administered the flu vaccines, but intramuscular injection was hardly something he could forget how to do.
“You have run a Laser Defolliculator II before?” she said with surprise.
“No,” said Yungman. Now they were using lasers for vaccines? She turned to look at the clipboard she was carrying. “Just to confirm: Do you have a Minnesota State Medical License? Any pending malpractice lawsuits or medical board actions? Any felonies?”
“Yes, no, no, no,” he said obediently. This was getting a bit annoying.
She handed him a white coat that said SANUS Mall-Based Medicine on the pocket. “It’s ten dollars a day to rent.”
“I have one back at home,” he said. Paying for a coat? “Consistency across the brand,” she said. “We really have to hurry
here.” Yungman sighed as she left to go make a copy of his credit card.
While the trainer was gone, Yungman didn’t know where to put his eyes, so he picked up a brochure from a pile.
MAKE MINE MEDICAL!! GRAND OPENING!!
Specialized medical retail puts the “treat” back into treatments:
Speedee Dialysis In-and-Out Chemo USA CancerCare Depilation Nation
For Eyes LASIK and vision testing Quik Vu MRI/Imaging
Barry’s Bariatric (now with Barry’s Jr. lap bands!) Dome Depot Neurology & Psychopharmaceuticals Faster Than the ER!
PharMACY’s medicines, body care, clothes, appliances & gifts (check out our wedding registry!)
Vaccines R Us
“Keep this—this is your only receipt.”
White coat deposit plus $500 incidentals at Depilation Nation.
“Depilation Nation?” he said, looking up.
“We really need to start your training. The store opens”—she checked her gadget-y SANUSwatch; hers was plain, with a black plastic strap that was cracked and whitened in a few places—“in fifteen minutes.”
Yungman wanted to correct her, gently.
“I’m actually supposed to be administering vaccines—at Vaccines R Us.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Not according to your ID.”
WELCOME TO DEPILATION NATION!
Where unwanted hair comes to die.
~ A SANUS Medical Retail Outlet ~
Laser mustache/pubic hair depilation is:
LESS PAINFUL THAN WAXING OR TWEEZING
—NO ANNOYING STUBBLE
CLEANER SKIN WITH LESS CHANCE OF INFECTION PHYSICIAN ADMINISTERED FOR
HIGHEST SAFETY STANDARDS
PERFECT SMOOTHNESS & PERMANENT RESULTS** FINANCING AVAILABLE!!
** your results may vary
“They don’t have doctors at Vaccines R Us. Just nurse’s aides and nurses.”
It was true that when in a hurry sometimes he got his annual flu shot at Walgreens. Some clerk did it; there was never a doctor in sight.
“OB-GYNs work here,” she said in her accented voice.
“I don’t mean to sound flippant,” he said, “but depilation is even less of a medical procedure than vaccines.”
“This is the exclusive FDA-approved machine for pubic hair depilation, and it requires a doctor to operate it.”
“Pubic hair? Why would anyone want to depilate that?” “It’s an elective health therapeutic.”
Yungman wanted to clutch his head. Health? Pubic hair cushioned and protected the sensitive skin of the area. Depilation was unhealthy for it. Folliculitis. Various infections. How did he end up in this absurd situation? Yes, it was Einstein!
“Doctors shouldn’t disease-monger,” he said. “Pubic hair is not a pathology and should be left alone. Here’s your coat back.” He could sit in some café somewhere and have a pretzel until the day was done.
“The store needs to open.” She looked at him. “You know, I’m a physician, too.”
“I was an OB in my country.” “Then why are you—”
The trainer leaned over her electronic slate and typed furiously into it.
I can’t work here legally.
Yungman stared. Was she perhaps “illegal” from a different country? Maybe South America? Or Muslim? She had pale skin, violet eyes, and, just underneath her curtain of black hair, a plum-size burn scar on the side of her face that looked like a second, smaller set of lips.
If you leave, there’ll be no one to work the shift. I’ll be in trouble. Black Friday is one of the biggest days. Please don’t leave. I need this job. My educational visa has expired. I can’t go back to my country, for many reasons. I have a child. This job is what feeds us.
Yungman paused. He knew the feeling.
“Hey,” the standardized patient said, canting her head up to look at Yungman. “Can we get going here?”
“I’ll be with you momentarily.” Yungman smiled at her. A nice white lady. She couldn’t even begin to fathom the life of the undocumented immigrant. Her fears would be along the lines of missing a good deal on a microwave at a Black Friday sale, not living with the icy fear of a hand on the shoulder (indeed, the INS was now called ICE). She probably envisioned “illegals” as dirty and scary and not the two doctors with her now.
He turned to the trainer. Might as well get her through the day, so she wouldn’t get fired. “It says on the sign you also offer mustache hair removal. Can’t I just do that?”
She shook her head and typed again:
Mustache is on the menu solely to get around obscenity codes because we are within five hundred feet of a children’s playground— Nickelodeon Universe.
A beep from her SANUSwatch, followed by a misting sound. That smell of the air immediately after a violent August thunderstorm.
“Ozone,” she explained. “The SANUSwatch comes with a SANUSwatch that deploys if it senses stress, to neutralize sweat odor from employees.”
He recognized that hunted look. “All right,” he said. Yungman tried to listen carefully as she explained how to use the Laser Defolliculator II on different kinds of pubic hair. The standardized patient was pleased to receive a double coupon.
The trainer lifted the metal gate at the entrance. Clackclackclack- clackityclack!! A twenty-one-gun salute going up and down the mall. She switched on the electric sign that ran in a banner, like a news feed:
BLACK FRIDAY SPECIAL: 5-session package only $800
~ Your operator today is Y. KWAK, MD, OB- GYN ~
The Defolliculator II was a waist-high beige plastic box on wheels, so the operator just had to move it from patient to patient. The treatment room held a circle of six beds facing the center like the spokes of a wheel. Same format the Russians used to mass-produce LASIK eye surgery to quickly standardize the vision of cosmonauts—no glasses in space! How strange to think that some of the most impressive achievements of Communism had been repackaged as consumer items in an American mall. “Hello, I’m Dr. Kwak.” He stood with the hose of the Defolliculator in his hand.
The patient was wearing headphones and what looked like ski goggles, but opaque. The trainer had disappeared.
“Don’t bother, just get in there—she can’t hear you through the audio on the SVRE,” said a young woman, who appeared in the doorway to the treatment room. She said her name was Joelle and she was the receptionist. She wore a white SANUS coat like Yungman’s.
“SANUS Virtual Reality Experience.” She pronounced SANUS yet another way, as san-yoo-ess.
“So I should just start, with no introduction? Consent?”
“They sign all sorts of stuff; it’s fine. By the way, SANUS is timing you. That chip in your wristband talks to the Defolliculator. I’d get going if I were you.”
The patient giggled at something, then pawed at the air the way a kitten does at dust motes.
Yungman aimed the nozzle. He waited, as the trainer had shown him, for a circle of red, about the diameter of a quarter to illuminate “the target area,” then pulled the trigger. He would repeat this action depending on “the density of follicular coverage on the labia majora and mons.”
Yungman said goodbye to that inaugural customer. Would he remember her? He would never forget his very first patient. Cho Gung-hae, annual exam. Curly perm; comma-shaped, kind eyes; almost the same age as his own dear mother. Yungman had at the beginning of the exam stuttered out orders to put her feet in the stirrups and she had jumped to comply, calling him Respected Dr. Kwak. Him, the third-year medical student! Yungman felt like he’d grown ten centimeters. He didn’t know how he felt now, with the patients plugged in to some other world, not his. He moved on to number two, then numbers three and four. A strange relief, actually, to just put his head down and get the job done. He could do that.
Joelle reappeared in the doorway, frantically motioned to him to meet her in the back storeroom. “You’re doing it wrong.”
“My bedside manner?”
“Is that what you call it?” She handed him a pair of black mesh panties out of a cardboard box, the same standard nonirritant panties Horse’s Breath General gave to women postpartum. Courtesy of Depilation Nation it said across the gluteal section on the back.
“You forgot these. If the customer realizes she didn’t get her free panties and makes noise about it, we have to give her a free treatment— that’ll be taken out of your wages. As it is, you’ll probably lose a customer service star right off.”
Yungman paused, understanding that he was being scolded by a twenty-five-year-old. On the other hand, she was just trying to help him preserve his meager salary.
“Thank you, Joelle. I appreciate your advice.”
She lifted what looked like a Kotex. “They can also buy this Chill- PAC—five dollars, and you get a fifty-cent royalty.”
“Does it help?” Yungman had no idea what a laser-depilated vulva would feel like, but guessed it wouldn’t be pleasant. Lasers cut.
“Who the heck knows?” “You’ve never had it done?”
“What? Nah, I just work here. Before this I was a greeter at the Rainforest Cafe over yonder and saw the HELP WANTED sign and thought, Why should I stand all day and get varicose veins at twenty- five? And watch little kids eat too much kukui ice cream and puke? Oh, and you should keep this in your pocket for reference.”
She handed him a card that looked like a grid of paint colors at Sherwin-Williams: (1) white school paste; (II) peaches; (III) ochres, burlap tans. (IV) was just a square of black with a big red X overlaid on top with an exclamation point.
“Why is category four crossed out?” “That’s the skin tone we can’t do.”
Yungman put the card to the back of his hand. If he didn’t use sun- screen, his skin darkened to III easily. His mother, who had the kind of porcelain Korean skin whose color was as unchangeable as alabaster, used to tease Yungman, calling him a winter scholar, summer peasant.
Joelle flipped open the Employee Manual, and read:
NOTICE: Highly pigmented skin (skin gradient tints > III) CANNOT BE ACCOMMODATED per FDA regulations, as melanocytes pose risk of diversion of laser from hair to skin and burn risk. Operators should review proper legal language in Appendix 2(c) part iii and take proper caution for obtainment of liability insurance before operation.
“Miss Joelle, may I ask you something?” “Sure.”
“Why do people want to remove their pubic hair in the first place?” “You’ve never heard of a Brazilian?”
“Of course I have! How about Pelé?” “You’re funny!”
A noise like a clanging school bell. It took Yungman a second to realize it was coming from his wristband.
“Oh, first time that went off it scared the bejeezus out of me, too. It can detect if you aren’t moving; you’ll get fined for ‘wage theft.’ It goes up every minute you’re late.”
Behind Joelle, the banner scrolled in an endless loop.
LESS PAINFUL THAN WAXING OR TWEEZING . . . NO ANNOYING STUBBLE . . . CLEANER SKIN WITH LESS CHANCE OF INFECTION . . . PHYSICIAN ADMINISTERED FOR HIGHEST SAFETY STANDARDS . . . PERFECT SMOOTHNESS & PERMANENT RESULTS** . . . FINANCING AVAILABLE!! BLACK FRIDAY SALE BLACK FRIDAY SALE.
Yungman got back to work.