Excerpted from Los Angeles Noir, edited by Denise Hamilton and forthcoming from Akashic Press. See Readings for events associated with this book.
The Korean women, lined up in black bras and underpants, pushed and pulled the flesh on their individual tables as if they were kneading dough.
Ann watched for a moment and then dipped down into a steaming bath a few yards away. She was naked and unadorned, aside from a locker key dangling from a bright-orange plastic bracelet around her wrist. She didn’t know why she even bothered securing the locker. There wasn’t much worth taking. Her beat-up jeans, size four, extra skinny, extra tall, and a simple T-shirt. A ratty bra with a rusty clasp and twisted underwire and matching panties. A fake leather hobo-style purse, bought at a discount store on Hollywood Boulevard, a couple of miles from her apartment. Platform shoes that stank of too much wear. She didn’t have a car right now, so she traveled with a monthly bus pass. In her wallet was a fresh twenty — for the tip her co-worker Marie told her to bring — and a couple of ones.
The spa had been expensive — a hundred dollars and then the twenty-dollar tip — but Marie told Ann that she needed to treat herself when she was feeling down. “Who needs antidepressants?” she had said. “Just get a salt scrub in Koreatown.”
Ann lifted her face from the hot water and brushed away wet hair plastered on her forehead. She tried not to stare at the masseuses working in the open spa, but it was hard not to. Marie had forewarned her about their lack of clothing. “Only makes sense, you know? It’s the same for the masseurs in the men’s section. They scrub off your dead skin and then rinse you off. Everyone gets wet. If they’re going to get soaked, they might as well wear bathing suits.”
But these weren’t swimsuits — at least it didn’t look that way from the Jacuzzi.
About every ten minutes, a masseuse would leave her station and call out an assigned number into the open spa. Ann’s masseuse was Number 19, which was written and circled on the envelope she had received, along with two square pink washcloth mitts. The texture of the cloth was rough, like sandpaper. “You’ll feel like you’re getting rid of all of the asshole customers we had to deal with this past week,” Marie had told her. “A little pain for pleasure.”
Ann was all for pain. She preferred hot baths — scalding ones, in fact. Her fingers right now were becoming shriveled, to the point that the outside layer of skin was almost melting off.
“Nine-teen. Nine-teen.” One of the masseuses called out. The slick plastic table next to her was empty.
Ann drew herself out of the tub. The tile floor was slippery and she clutched onto her washcloths and envelope while holding her thin cotton robe and towel over her bare front. The massage-table area smelled dank and slightly syrupy — not a fragrance that she had ever encountered before.
Number 19, her black hair frizzed from a bad perm and held back with bobby pins, must have been in her mid-forties at least. The skin around her jowls, below her armpits, and around her belly seemed soft and pudgy. Ann had seen that look before. It was comforting, reassuring. She could imagine melting in those fleshy arms so that her body would no longer be floating without an anchor.
Number 19 took Ann’s robe and towel and hung them on a hook beside a steaming barrel of water. The envelope went on a shelf. “Lie down.” She nudged Ann toward the slippery plastic table. Even that gentle touch made Ann flinch — when was the last time someone had touched her bare back? Ann did as she was told, turning her head toward the left. She could see that the waistband of Number 19’s black panties was torn. The masseuse took one of the pink washcloths and Ann heard her squirt liquid — the seaweed salt treatment, no doubt — onto the center of the mitt.
The slosh of water from the barrel came next. It was lukewarm, not hot like the Jacuzzi’s water.
Then Number 19 began scrubbing her shoulders, her backside, her legs. Ann now understood what Marie was talking about. All the bad residue from work seemed to be stripping away from her body, breaking up, disintegrating with each scrub and rinse of water.
Number 19 then tapped Ann on the shoulder and gestured for her to turn over.
Ann didn’t have much breasts to speak of. It didn’t bother her that they looked more like a chubby pubescent boy’s chest, rather than a woman’s. She had no desire to buy implants like a few of her co-workers. She remembered when her body was just developing and she was sitting in the backyard with her mother, aunt, and a girl cousin about Ann’s same age — maybe ten. Ann didn’t know why, but all of a sudden her mother and aunt lifted up Ann and her cousin’s cotton shirts and undershirts, revealing puffs of growing breasts. They each squeezed a breast as if they were testing rolls of bread in an oven. The two women then laughed and returned to their cigarettes and gossip. Ann and her cousin didn’t know what all the fuss was about. Ann didn’t feel violated or abused, just that she wasn’t privy to a secret that her body apparently held.
After the washing came the massage. Number 19 twisted her fists and fingers into knots that had developed throughout Ann’s back from carrying heavy trays of ceramic dishes. The pain shot down into the center of her lower body and even moved to her toes. Then came the slapping down her spine. The slapping made Ann feel delirious.
No one really talked in the spa, so there was no sound of voices or music, only the sloshing of water, slapping, and scrubbing. The spa took on a rhythm that was more felt than heard.
Ann herself wasn’t the type to initiate conversation, but somehow the loosening of the knots in her shoulders made her more bold. “When did you come here? You know, to this country?” she asked in a low voice, while Number 19 slathered moisturizer on her back.
The masseuse paused for a moment. From the corner of her eye, Ann could see her frown and suck on the inside of her cheeks. It was as if Ann had accused her of doing something wrong.
She took a deep breath and whispered in Ann’s ear, “Two year.” Number 19’s breath felt warm and actually smelled sweet, like fresh milk with sugar mixed in. She then did a last squeeze of Ann’s shoulders. “Very tight,” she said as Ann got up from the table.
Ann didn’t know how to say waitress in Korean, so she mimed writing in an order pad.
“Oh, that’s good job.” Number 19’s voice sounded sad, as if she knew that her job — cleaning naked bodies in black underwear — was anything but good.
Ann attempted to correct the masseuse — she must have thought she was a secretary or something — but Number 19 was already calling out into the open spa, “Nine-teen, nine-teen.” Their session was officially over.
Ann returned to the locker room to retrieve her clothes. The dressing room had a couple of hair dryers, but the vanity area was so crowded that Ann opted to just comb her wet hair and let it air dry.
When she went into the waiting room, the desk clerk and manager, a Korean woman with immaculate skin and oversize glasses, explained the spa’s tip policy. “Twenty dollars in envelope, and you put in here,” she said, pointing to a locked wooden box. “Make sure number is on the envelope.”
Ann did what she was told, but felt uneasy. Why had Number 19 hesitated before explaining when she had come to this country? Her arrival or stay may not have been through legal channels, Ann figured. And the silence in the massage room — it didn’t seem to exist to promote relaxation, but to snuff out secrets. Would Number 19 get her twenty dollars? Ann wondered. She walked out the doors toward a driving range where golfers were hitting balls into a large green net, two stories high. Ann had learned to play golf when she was a teenager from one of her mother’s boyfriends. “Never know when you’ll need to know the game,” he had told her. She watched the golfers for a few minutes, debating whether she should go back into the spa and make sure Number 19 received her tip. But she decided against it. Who was she, anyway? She was an outsider. She didn’t understand the spa’s ways.
That night Ann tossed and turned in her sleep. She had a nightmare and woke up gasping for air as if someone was trying to keep her from breathing.
After that first time at the Korean spa, Ann knew that she had to feel the touch and hear the voice of Number 19 again. But it had taken her three months to save up that initial hundred and twenty-five dollars. If she wanted to go again, she would have to be more aggressive in placing money in her personal bank, an old pickle jar where she stuffed extra bills and change from her daily tips. She began collecting her neighbors’ empty soda cans and walking to a recycling shack near the local supermarket and waiting alongside homeless junkies to exchange cans for coins. Three weeks later she rolled the quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies on a TV tray. She came up with fifty dollars in change. With her five- and one-dollar bills in tips, she had enough to cover the spa.
This time she was more bold in her questions. “You have a car?”
“Bus. Two stops to Hobart.”
Ann knew the bus line that traveled that route.
“What’s your name?”
“No name. Only number.”
Ann asked her questions while lying on the massage table. She noticed that the tear in Number 19’s underpants was getting larger and wondered why she didn’t use some of her tip money to buy a new pair. She ended up not asking her, but the question remained in her mind.
Before she left, the masseuse stared up at Ann’s face.
“Nice,” she said.
Ann furrowed her eyebrows.
Number 19 pointed to Ann’s eyes. “Very pretty.”
About two weeks later, Marie told her some bad news at work. “The bitch laid me off. Said I talk too much.”
“You can get another job.”
“Yeah, another one at a dump like this. It’s not worth it anymore.” Marie removed her purse from a hook in the locker and looped it through her arm. “You know, Ann, you might think of moving on too.”
Ann was jumpy all day. She messed up two orders and accidentally broke a juice glass. She was relieved that she worked the day shift and had the evening to herself. When she got home, she noticed that the pickle jar was only half-full of change, not nearly enough for a full salt scrub, but enough for the use of the Jacuzzi. At least she could see Number 19. It was early evening on Thursday, past 7, so maybe she would be on her last customer. They might even have time to go out, have a cup of coffee, thought Ann.
Number 19, in the middle of a massage, seemed in an unusually good mood. She smiled a couple of times and dipped her head down to her customer’s ear. And then — no, it couldn’t be — it seemed that Number 19 was laughing. Ann wiped the sweat drops from her eyelashes. She stumbled out of the tub, her knees almost sliding on the tile. But Number 19 didn’t bother looking her way.
Ann slipped on her clothes without properly drying her body, so the sleeves of her shirt clung awkwardly to her upper arms. She felt embarrassed about being so upset. This was Number 19’s workplace, after all. She had to be friendly to all the other customers.
Ann left the massage room and crossed over to the driving range to hit a bucket of balls. After the sun went down, she decided to return to the massage waiting room. The wooden box was unlocked and the desk clerk was slitting open the tip envelopes with a knife. On top of the reception table were neat stacks of twenty-dollar bills.
“We closed,” the clerk said, finally noticing Ann. She smiled as if she knew of an inside joke. Her magenta lipstick looked freshly applied.
Ann couldn’t imagine why the clerk needed to look well-groomed to count money. She figured the clerk must be a higher-up, maybe a manager. “You know that’s their money, not yours.”
“We pay them tomorrow. They will get their money, I assure you.”
The next evening, Ann returned to the block where the spa was located, but this time she waited at Number 19’s bus stop. She didn’t know if she would recognize the masseuse with her clothes on, but the minute she and another masseuse walked across the street, Ann got up from the bench.
“Did you get your tip money?” she asked.
The masseuse and her friend looked afraid.
“This is America. You have rights — it doesn’t matter if you’re illegal or not.”
Just then, a bus roared to the stop and the two women rushed to get inside.
“Next time I’ll give you the tip. Or give me your address. I’ll send you the money,” Ann said from the street. The doors folded together; the bus sighed before joining the lines of traffic.
“I’d like to see Number 19.” Ann stood in front of the check-in desk of the spa on Friday. It was the same manager, only this time she was wearing tangerine lipstick instead of magenta.
“One hundred dollars.”
Ann wasn’t about to admit that she didn’t have the money. “I just need to speak with her.”
“Number 19 working.”
A couple of other women in yoga pants entered the waiting room and the manager turned her attention to them. Ann kept her place at the front of the line, but the manager just moved over to the side to collect the women’s money and give them their towels and robes.
“You bother our customers,” the manager said after they left for the locker room.
“I need to talk with Number 19.”
“Number 19 doesn’t want to see you.”
“You didn’t even speak to her. You don’t know.”
The manager adjusted her glasses and pointed to a sign above a glass shelf that held beauty products. WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE, it read. Ann was very familiar with the sign. They had the same one at the restaurant.
“Listen,” Ann said, raising her voice, “I can close this place down, you know.”
“Yah, yah.” The manager turned her back to Ann and rearranged some bottles of body scrub on the glass shelf.
“I’ll tell immigration that you’re using illegals.”
The manager snapped her head back toward Ann. “What has Number 19 told you?”
Ann’s stomach felt queasy. Maybe she had gone too far. The last thing that she wanted to do was get Number 19 in trouble with her boss. “Nothing,” she said. “Just that you better watch out.”
Ann walked out of the waiting room and went to the driving range to release some tension. This time she chose a spot on the far left side so she could keep an eye on the massage-room door. One of her balls was sailing to the hundred-fifty-foot mark when she noticed someone leaving the massage room.
Number 19. By herself.
“Number 19!” she called out, and quickly walked over to face her.
The masseuse lowered her head, as if she was preparing to experience something distasteful. One of her bobby pins was coming loose, and Ann fought the urge to push it back in her hair.
“What’s wrong? Did your manager do something to you? I tried to set her straight — that tip money is yours.”
“Why you say anything? Not your business.” Number 19 continued walking, and Ann pulled at her elbow.
Number 19 wrestled back her arm and Ann was surprised to experience her wrath. “I fire!”
Ann couldn’t believe this news. “I was just trying to help you. You have to understand.”
“No job. No money. How can I live? You understand?” Number 19 ran down the stairs and Ann, still carrying her nine iron, chased after her. But the masseuse knew the ins and outs of the building better than Ann, who lost track of her, then dashed outside and asked the security guard if he had seen the masseuse walking by. The security guard shook his head, so Ann headed to the bus stop to find Number 19. But there was no sign of her.
After an hour, Ann went to speak to the manager again. “You need to give Number 19 her job back.”
“I need to do nothing.” The wooden tip box was open again, the stacks of twenties lined up beside it. “Get out. You can’t prove anything.”
“I can get you in trouble.”
“Who you? Poor nasty girl. Nobody going to listen to nasty girl.”
“They’ll listen,” Ann said, fingering the grip of the nine iron. “You need to give Number 19 her job back.”
“Number 19? You know numbers, but no name?” The manager threw her head back and laughed, her tangerine mouth resembling a demented clown’s.
Ann held the golf club like a baseball bat and swung. A matte of hair flew off the manager’s scalp and her body lurched backwards into the glass shelves, which shattered, spilling the bottles of beauty products onto the linoleum floor.
It was quiet for a moment, aside from the bottles rolling in the shards of glass. A bloody mass clung to the end of the club as Ann dropped it on the floor. She then walked over to the other side of the counter. The manager’s face was contorted and her glasses had flown to the far corner of the reception area. There was a huge gash on the right side of her forehead and blood was pouring out, looking like a red dye soaking the roots of her hair.
On the floor was a light-blue Tiffany bag with Tupperware inside — the manager’s lunch perhaps. Ann held it to the edge of the counter and scooped in the stacks of twenties. Next to the cash register was a taped work schedule. Ann pulled it off and then walked out.
When she reached the parking lot, her head was pulsating. She walked past the security guard again, even acknowledging him with a nod.
Locating Number 19’s address on the work sheet, Ann could have taken the bus, but opted to walk instead. She passed mini-malls with neon signs that she couldn’t read, rows of multilevel apartments with fire escapes that didn’t seem to lead anywhere, and another driving range. Adrenaline was pumping throughout her body and she couldn’t stand still. Number 19’s apartment building was much like hers, a dilapidated structure made of bricks that didn’t seem attached to one another, loose teeth in old gray gums. Sloped grass lawn full of weeds that could probably accommodate two parked Chryslers.
Ann climbed up the creaky wooden steps to Number 19’s unit. She didn’t bother to try the doorbell — they never seemed to work in these buildings. Instead she rapped the dark wooden door with the side of her bent index finger.
The door slowly opened, and Number 19 didn’t seem surprised to see Ann standing outside her home. She looked shorter, plumper, and older in the doorway of her apartment.
“I need to talk to you. May I come in?”
Number 19 nodded, holding the door open for Ann. It was a one-bedroom apartment and it looked like somebody slept on the couch. Number 19 gestured toward the kitchen, which was connected to the living room.
“I tried to get your job back, but I couldn’t.” Ann then dumped the contents of the Tiffany bag onto the kitchen table. The cash, mixed in with shards of glass, tumbled out, almost knocking over a plastic soy-sauce bottle and a jar of chili paste. Last of all, the Tupperware container of the manager’s half-eaten lunch slid on top of the bills. “Here’s your money; it’s all yours. You deserve it.”
Number 19 looked at her, first with fear and then sadness. Her hands trembled as she touched one of the bills. Then the bedroom door burst open. Uniformed officers with guns yelled, “Police!”
Number 19 was crying now into her bare hands. Her roommate — Ann recognized the woman from the spa — emerged from the back bedroom and tried to console Number 19.
One of the officers pulled Ann’s arms back and, while reciting her rights, secured her wrists in plastic ties.
After Ann was led out of the apartment, one of the police detectives, a Korean-American who spoke Korean, turned to the masseuse. “Did you have a relationship with that woman?” he asked.
The masseuse kept shaking her head as if she were trying to erase any thought of the girl from her mind. “Just a customer,” she said. “No one special.”
Naomi Hirahara is the author of the Mas Arai mystery series; her latest novel, Snakeskin Shamisen, has been nominated for a 2007 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best paperback original. She lives in Los Angeles.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.