A Chicano family with a gang history of slanging drugs and robbing houses moved in next to the Korean house. They wanted their smallest house on the block to mean something. The Korean mother said that their house was inhabited, though, by evil demons. The previous owner, a middle-aged-lady of the house, had a heart attack and asked her sons to call nine-one-one. Instead, they allegedly left and played basketball. When the teenagers came back, their mother was already dead and cold.
In their front yard, the new Chicano family planted palm trees, which had grown thick and tall. They felt like they were becoming Egyptian royalty now. Finally, they could start their lives afresh in the sleepy San Gabriel Valley, where they believed the mountains would hide and protect them from their past.
The Korean family’s relatives too found haven there as well, when Los Angeles burned. They lived at the dead end of the cul-de-sac in the valley of the greater Los Angeles region.
The depth of the valley resembled its guardian-Archangel-Saint Gabriel’s horn, which apparently has an infinite surface area but finite volume. Thus, the angelic mountain ranges stood as a row of blue, stone guardians for the grand valley. But because of the smog screen, one almost never perceives how far away they are.
The block used to be Filipino dominated, but they flew when the Mexicans and Chicanos moved in. Now, only one remained. The Korean family should’ve flown too, but the old lady of the house hated change.
One Saturday, at the dead-end house, John woke up from his tall, custom-made, princely bed. He jumped off it. The balls of his feet landed against the cool, golden, hardwood floor, like a cat springing off the top of a wall and landing on stone. He always loved the hard and smooth texture against his bare feet; it felt better to his naked feet than stepping on cheap plastic laminate or worn carpet.
He went to urinate in the toilet, the same one he had urinated in since he was two. His urine was a bright yellow and created a bubbly froth on the surface of the toilet water. Smells earthy, he thought.
His mother heard him flush the toilet and she screamed, “John! John! Breakfast is ready.” She screamed because that’s how she always called for her kids, even when they were close and already fully grown. She was missing a front tooth and had black wiry hair that showed her scalp. The latter was probably in her DNA.
She had a worn face, evidence of the bitter sufferings she went through from her first life in North Korea, her second one as a refugee in South Korea, and her third one in America. She survived by telling herself every morning that life goes on. She even learned to reincarnate her suffering to her advantage. For instance, her marriage battles with her then-husband seasoned her in how to raze a man away to nothing with words.
“I’m coming!” John yelled back, but only because he thought she didn’t hear well. He walked through the hallway to the large, ebony, oak dining table. It was much too large for the room, and on it there was a printer and all kinds of utility bills that had no place there.
For breakfast there were five side dishes and hot, sticky, wet (but not too wet), Korean rice. She bowled it up in a hot silver, metal bowl and gave him heavy metal chopsticks and an even heavier metal spoon to eat his breakfast with. John lifted off the metal lid and white steam rose, like ghosts that fly then vanish with the cock’s crow, the one that ushers in the morning light. The five side dishes were bean paste soup; dried squid; blue crabs that had been pickled in garlic, onion, and soy sauce for one month; some fried American bacon; and his favorite: raw Pollack roe, which his mother scrambled with buttery sesame oil, pepper, minced garlic, and some light soy sauce. There was no Korean kimchi, the fermented, spiced, cabbage, which John explained to his white friends as the spicy-Korean-version-of-German-sauerkraut. He didn’t like kimchi and, as a result, his mother said he wasn’t Korean. He started pecking at the red fish ovaries with his chopsticks and mixed it in his rice. The steaming rice cooked the roe bits pink and flesh colored when he mixed it in. They took on a firm texture.
He picked up a piece of rice and flesh with his chopsticks and put it in his mouth. His mother liked eating breakfast with John because he talked and listened. John was more like her in spirit. She saw her blood flow through him most when he enjoyed evening the score against those who hurt him. Yet, he was also balanced by inheriting her ex-husband’s calculating business prowess to avoid reckless decisions. But because John also resembled him, his presence was a constant reminder of her failed marriage. This seeded her with resentment. She knew, he, and not she, was her ex-husband’s prized possession. They spent every extra cent they earned on tutoring John privately, always perfecting him, but not the younger one. Doctor or lawyer he had to be – her ex-husband, who suffered the inferiority of being a second son, always said.
The mother’s younger son was really different: he just listened and never talked. Then, he moved out and got married. She used to love her younger boy more than John because he was more like the macho ex-husband she had fallen in love with decades earlier. Now, she was bitter that his bet and not hers had actually paid off.
“That dog came back in our yard again,” his mother said.
“Really?” John said.
“Yeah, that stupid Crazy Man never controls his dog. Just shits in our yard. So, I told him, ‘Hey you! Yeah, you! Come over here and pick up your dog shit.’” She still spoke with an accent even after living in America for thirty years.
“Then, what happened?”
“He came with his shovel and pick it up. Then he told me, ‘I do my job, Lady! Right?’ So, I told him: ‘Look you stupid ass! I don’t want your dog here! I don’t want you here.”
“Then, what happened?” He was now picking at the super crispy bacon with his chopsticks. He was craving it. His mother overcooked it by placing a weight on it to press out all the grease. He chewed and felt the textures of crunchy bacon and spongy rice.
“He told me to shut up. He just crazy. Something not normal with him. He thirty-five. Super fat. He not even work! I think he on welfare – like that whole family he live with.”
“Those Mexicans just come up here and go on welfare. The family before that lived in that house – they were on welfare too. Make babies. Welfare. Make babies. Send them back, I say. So – I told him, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, fat ass! You 35! You have no job!’”
“He just went back and called his dumb dog to him. He said, ‘Come here! Come here!’ The dog just looked at him and that dumb dog don’t even listen. Just like his owner – stupid! I told him,‘Go chain your dog! And can you believe what he told me?”
“He said, ‘I’ll chain you!’”
John was offended. He imagined what happened. He hated that dog too – it was a dirty brown Labrador mix, which had a fur coat that looked more like shit brown than chocolate. It had a sagging stomach, too, from eating dried kibbles from the ninety-nine cents store. Its droopy eyes made him look like the stupidest dog he had ever seen.
His mother continued, “We hafta be strong, you know. Those Mexicans, they look down on us because we’re the only Asians in the neighborhood.”
“That’s right.” John said. He noticed too that they were the new majority in the neighborhood. He hated that his Mexican neighbors always appeared to band together – even when that family was the problem. They would taunt him, but he noted in his mind that it was never done one-on-one. There always had to be five or six of them there before they dogged him.
He also thought this story was getting old. This was the fifth breakfast he heard some version of the dog story. She knew eventually it’d get to him.
Six months after that breakfast, John came back to his mother’s place for the weekend. He went to law school in the glitzy West. She knew he only came to their dumpy town on Saturdays for her.
For this breakfast, he was eating rice cake soup in a cloudy crab broth. Traditionally, the Koreans made the broth with chicken bones. But John experimented once with crab shells. From then on, he insisted that she fry cracked crab shells before brewing the crab broth, which would leach away their sweetness and rich, fatty, fishy flavors. She didn’t want to admit it, but he was right again. Even when her relatives said that their new method was culinary sacrilege, which went against ancient and perfected Korean heritage, it produced a far more delicious dish.
Sprinkled on top were shiny greenish-black strips of sea weed, which his mother roasted over the sapphire flame of her kitchen, and orange strips of egg, made by surgically cutting an omelet into strips of ribbons. He took his heavy spoon and with it fished out a rice cake, a slivered egg strip, flakes of seaweed, and broth. He blew on the spoon and spirited the steam away from him.
“He did it again, John!” His mother said.
“Yeah, that dog came back?” John asked.
“Just this morning.”
Again, he thought. The same story, over and over. Someone’s gotta do something about it.
“I’ll go talk to him.”
“No. No. Don’t do that. I no want more trouble in neighborhood. They’re Mexican. They gonna gang up on you.”
John chose not to listen to that last statement. He walked to the neighbor’s house, which had the garage door open; it was open every day. Inside was a pool table, with a mattress on top, the back seat of a van that they used as a couch, a small table with a television, piles of boxes, and a broken down van that was rusting.
The owner of the dog, the one John’s mother called the Crazy Man, was six foot tall and had long, matted, and ugly hair. He also had a flat, big nose and stubby facial hair. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, so John sized him up at probably 300 pounds, and saw his pregnant belly sag and the fat fall near his crotch. He wondered how his toothpick legs could carry all that weight. He wondered if he could see his own crotch if he looked down. Probably not. He was sitting down on the removed van seat, watching television in the garage, and drinking a 32oz can of King Cobra beer.
Compared to the 6 foot Crazy Man, John looked tiny and short. No matter though, because when he was face to face with him, the Crazy Man’s blood pressure began revving. John could smell his fear, which had the same scent as anger. Crazy Man thought, Oh, shit. “Hey,” John said, “I need to speak to your parents.”
“No you don’t!” Crazy Man said. “I’m 35! You can talk to me.”
John ignored the Crazy Man and walked up the drive way to the front door of the house. The Crazy Man felt safer with the little chink far from him. That’s when he said to John, “Come here, you little Shit!”
John walked passed him like he didn’t exist. Knocked on the door. An older man, who reminded him of a Native American, came out. He said, “Can I help you?”
“Yeah,” John said, “You gotta tell your step-son to control that dog of his. How many times we gotta tell him – we don’t want that dog in our yard?”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?”
The Crazy Man started screaming at John: “Come here, you little Shit. I’m gonna kick your fucken ass! You little pussy!” John noted he was pretty far away.
At this point, John’s mother came out and witnessed the whole thing. She was a little old lady, but she wasn’t going to let her son get hammered alone.
She screamed at him, “FUCK YOU! LOOK AT YOU FUCKEN UGLY SELF! FAT! UGLY! YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE A JOB! SHAME! SHAME! WELFARE KING!!!”
The neighbors heard the clashing shouts and came to look at what was happening. An old lady came out of the crowd and laughed at the Crazy Man. A twenty year old man emerged too from it and said, “Korean versus Mexican. Who’s gonna win? Round one: Koreans!”
Then the Crazy Man’s mother, an older Mexican lady heard her son pounded with insults. She came out, full of rage and helplessness. For no mother could watch her son be beaten and broken. She said to John’s mother, “Mind your own business! None of your business if he don’t work! Get the hell off our property.”
John realized this was going nowhere. He turned around and walked back to his house. The Crazy Man, feeling relieved, then yelled at him, “That’s right! Go! I’ll fucken kick your ass.”
John turned around and said calmly, “Come on, Mom. Come back.”
She walked back, while all the neighbors were gathered around. When the Korean family returned to their property, one Filipino neighbor held her rosary and whispered to another neighbor, “Aye – evil’s returning back to the block. Most holy Mother, send thy angels to defend us.”
John pulled out his cell phone. He called animal control. John did all this in front of the house, so that the Crazy Man could hear. The Crazy Man then rushed into his house and told his mother, “That fucken chink called the cops on us!”
A man in uniform, from the county animal control came and cited Crazy Man for multiple offenses: no dog license, no vaccination, and unleashed dog. He was given also a notice to appear at the pound. The Crazy Man held the piece of bright yellow paper in his hand and kept walking back and forth in his yard with it. He would read it. He paced around the front yard with it. His dog laid down near one of the palm trees with her stomach on their lawn with her eyes drooping, head down, and paws extended.
Three months later, John was home for a weekend. For breakfast, his mother had strips of ribs over a small grill filled with charcoal. The charcoal had now gone to grey ash like burnt and buried bones. The pieces of ribs, however, sucked the flavor from the wood’s energy – now gone. It was sweet, salty, and smoky. He stripped the flesh away from the bones with his teeth. He would pour some of the marinade sauce over the steaming sticky white rice and at times picked up the salted, pickled shrimp, which still had its shell on and added both crunch and saltiness to the whole meal.
His mother told John, “There’s a new boy at the crazy family.”
“Oh yeah,” John said. “Who is he?”
“It’s nephew of Crazy Man. His brother’s son.”
“Oh – that’s his step-nephew.”
“How you know?”
“I looked them up in the public records system at the law school. The woman of the house had three children all from different fathers.”
“On the computer with the internet I can see people’s records.”
“Yeah? How do you know though that’s step-nephew?”
“Because all her children have different last names.”
“Oh. You can just look people up like that.” Her face showed interest.
“Yeah. What do you know about the boy?”
“I heard his mama in San Bernardino no want him anymore. She just dropped him off here and drive away in junky, red car. But I no know where his father is. I not seen him around long, long time.”
“You don’t know what happened?”
“He went back to jail. The first time he went for robbery of a house. But now, he’s back in for a two-four-five: assault.”
“What?” She said savoring the morsel of gossip like a piece of fried truffle, which is slowly chewed and the flavors sucked gone before it’s swallowed.
John just nodded.
She said, “Well, I don’t like that boy. He’s no good. The Crazy-Man teaching him bad things. I could tell. The boy’s becoming him.”
“Well, they probably took him for the welfare money.”
“Why else they take him?” She then said bitterly, “Welfare family.”
He was full after eating rice with chewy squid tentacles, which his mother marinated in spices. After he ate breakfast, he was walking out to his black, shiny, two seater sports car when he saw the shit-colored dog roaming through their yard again ready to shit. He felt mildly irritated, the way mosquito bites bug.
Again, he thought.
From the open garage, John saw the Nephew. He was tall for his age. Shaved head. Blue Dickies shorts that went passed the knees. Big baggy white shirt and white socks that covered his legs. John studied his face and thought to himself, He looks like a loser– just like that dog and his pop.
He went back inside to grab some rope to capture the dog and send it back to the pound. He came back out with the rope. He tried to lasso the chocolate bitch, but the Nephew, sitting in the open garage caught sight of John and the rope. He called for his uncle, the Crazy Man.
The Crazy Man came out and screamed, “Come back!” The dog just stared at him blankly. “Come on!” he said again. The dog still stared. He clapped thundering cracks, and it finally turned around and went home.
The Nephew felt like a hero. He had protected his uncle’s dog.
One month later, for Sunday dinner, John was drinking a glass of pinot noir from Trader Joes. He couldn’t afford the best stuff but he needed something to relax. His mother came back from her evening walk around the neighborhood. She was breaking a sweat. She sat at the dinner table where John was drinking his wine.
“You drinking again? Just like your father,” she said.
“Law school’s stressful.” He said in a tone that said it was an excuse. He sensed something was wrong. So he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“That boy! That young boy! When I was walking back, he in the garage. He said, ‘Ching Chong Chang Chong.’”
“Yeah. So what’d you do?” He was swirling the liquid ruby in the delicate glass to aerate it. Even cheap wine could taste better that way, or so he thought.
“I told him, ‘Shut up your mouth.’ He was with his friends. So, I told him, ‘I know all about you!’ Then he said, ‘What ya know?’ So – I told him, ‘I know your sister’s a whore and got pregnant 13.’ Then his friends, they’re all little kids, age 10 or 11, they all start laughing at him and say, ‘Oh you make her mad now. The Chinita cap yo-ass.’ Then I say, ‘You don’t belong here.’”
“How did you know the sister got pregnant at thirteen?”
“What?! You don’t remember?! The little girl that was getting big. They keep her in the house all the time – so no one see. She lived there for a while.”
“I wasn’t here. Remember? I was living abroad then.”
“Yeah – that was his sister. So, I told him, his sister’s little whore.”
“Then, what happened?”
“He no say nothin. So, I say to him, ‘You don’t even belong here!’ He say then, ‘Where I belong?’ I told him, ‘I don’t know. But not here! Your own mama no even want you!’”
John paused longer than he should, then said, “You gotta be careful, Mom. You shouldn’t be saying those things. Your mouth is gonna get you in trouble. They’re from San Bernardino. They don’t follow the law.” He wished she could start going back to church, where she would hopefully pick up the desire to improve herself. But she hated church now. That’s where she met her husband. She believed it was just a bunch of male alcoholics and smokers and female gossipers that enjoyed attending. All she could remember about church was that the Korean ministers always preached about being generous by giving.
“It’s alright,” she said proudly. “A police once told me I can say whatever I want, as long as I no touch other person. Free country, right?” She rambled next, “That’s why I don’t wanna go back to Korea. Your Dad always talked about taking me back, when you kids grow up. But there, I have to listen to everything he says. If I say no, he can just hit me. No police will come.”
“Just ‘cos you can do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to do.”
“But the police said I could,” she said.
Her tone told him she was convinced she was right no matter what he said or believed. “Alright, but I’m telling you – just ignore him.”
A month later, John was walking past the open garage when the Nephew shouted, “Hey faggot!” John paused, gave him a glance that said you’ll-be-sorry-for-that, and continued to keep walking to his house. The Nephew became uncomfortable with the silence. So, in response, he thought to himself: I wish I could kill that chink. Fuck the world. I’m a bad ass. I wish I can kill everyone except three people.
A week later, during a colorful, but artificial smog-filtered sunset, John, wearing white Lacoste sunglasses with black lenses, sped in his shiny black roadster with the top down through the cul-de-sac and onto his mother’s driveway. The Nephew saw the wind blowing through John’s neatly-cut-hair, and it only winded more pressure in the Nephew, who now stopped going to school. He, instead, watched all the cars ebb and flow out of the cul-de-sac from the open garage. He thought, Look at the fucken faggot car that pussy drives.
When John got out of the car, the Nephew saw the Chinky mother in a funny looking hat walk down the cul-de-sac, approaching the house. She stopped at the Crazy Man’s house. John’s breathing changed.
The Nephew saw her looking at their ginger cat with a pink nose, a white tuxedo breast, and white sock-paws, sitting on the neighbor’s yard. It was waving its tail back and forth. With its eye closed and head down, he began licking the front of his white paw.
John’s mother called to the cat and said, “Mark!” (John adopted Mark, one of four orphaned kitties, at a small Baptist church; he accordingly named them Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.) She paused a few seconds and again said, “Mark! Come here!” The cat immediately stopped licking itself and looked up at her with his shiny, crystal lime green eyes and ran to her. The cat followed his mother onto their driveway. Mark waited until she opened the front door. Then, he darted inside with his bell jingling. In the garage, the two now learned that their neighbor owned a cat and what it looked like.
John stood outside the door. Worried, he asked his mother, “What was Mark doing over there?”
“I don’t know. He never go there. Don’t know why he there today.”
Two days later, John got a phone call from his mother while he was at school. He picked up his iPhone and saw “Mom” calling. He pressed: “Accept.” She said, “John?”
“John! Animal control give you ticket for no registration. The damn neighbors report your cat to them. They fine us. You better take care of it!”
After class lectures, John took his roadster and zipped across from West to East Los Angeles. He went over the I-405, changing at the I-5, and then onto the I-10. On the four-lane freeway, he slipped in and out of traffic with his agile sports car, grating the motorists with his disrespect, as always. He drove through Beverly Hills, Korea Town, Downtown, and back into the San Gabriel Valley until he reached his sleepy city. He luckily beat the 3-o’clock-LA-traffic.
From there, he went straight to the town pound and registered his cat without telling them about the fine notice. He gave the proof of license to his mother. He then explained that the only thing she could tell animal control, when he returned, is that Mark was registered. That’s it and no more.
She asked, “What if they ask questions?”
He responded, “All you tell them is Mark is registered. Every other question you just say you don’t know anything. Got it? Constitutional right: be silent.”
He then went into the garage and picked up his cat, Mark. John believed his cat could understand English. So he picked up the cat and said, “Next time you go over to the house with the ugly dog, make sure you piss all over and take a huge dump. A stinky, nasty one. Ok?” The cat just stared at him and began purring as it always did when John spoke and held him.
He drove back to the West Side feeling good that the Crazy Man had to pay a fine, but they would avoid one. He thought, The law doesn’t like people like that.
The pudgy Chicano animal control officer came back the next day. His mother responded to the knock, looked in the peephole, opened the door, and said, “Don’t you be fining us. Our cat registered! Ok?!”
He said, “Where’s your cat?”
“I don’t know! They do what cats do. Walk around. Walk around.”
The officer thought to himself, That makes sense. So, he said, instead, “Let me see the proof of the registration.”
She brought it out and handed it to him. The cat was registered on the same day the officer cited Mark’s household. So, the officer didn’t know what came first. The citation or the registration? But he couldn’t prove it either way. He said to her, “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I’ll be sure to clear that citation.”
“Good,” she said. Then she shouted, “And don’t come back here!” She pointed to the Crazy Man’s house and said, “I know you come here because of them. All you Mexicans stick together. Support your kind!” She slammed the door.
He didn’t say anything. Instead, he hurried back into his banged up county SUV. He thought to himself, This always happens with neighbors.
One autumn Southern Californian Saturday, John was at the dining table having a breakfast he cooked. He took the frying pan and heated the oil until the water sizzled. He turned on the roaring fan above and dumped Korean sticky white rice in the pan below. He waited until it turned a crispy golden brown and then added leftover seafood and bacon he found in the ‘fridge. He fried it all evenly. He knew it too because it sounded like rain while the food was in the pan. Finally, he added in the gojujang, Korean chili paste; Chinese soy sauce; sugar; and scrambled eggs. He added eggs last so they would still be runny with that raw, yolky flavor. He bowled some out for his mother too. He was proud of himself because he made up the recipe.
They sat at the dining table and ate.
While exposing her good front tooth, she said, “I can’t eat this. I’m diabetic! And, it’s fried! The shrimp make it have a lot of cholesterol too!”
John knew she was addicted to food. So he said, “Just try a little then. I’ll eat the rest. I just want you to try it. It’s Korean fried rice – Gangnam style!” A Korean song called Gangnam style was one of those one-hit-wonders with a catchy but worn chorus. It was on all the American pop radio stations.
“Oh shut up! That stupid song on the radio, over and over again.” She then said, “Gangnam style,” with annoyance. She took a spoon and tried some of the bits of rice that looked like dried blood with pieces of sunny-yellow egg. She never said it tasted good, but John was carefully watching her – while pretending not to. She started with small bites and was consuming it all now, forgetting her earlier attempt to draw on her willpower.
Just like sin, John thought. He got her to eat it all, knowing the challenge would be in the first bite. He needed to feel affirmed by his worst critic, his mother, that he actually made a good dish.
“Did you hear about the boy’s uncle – the Crazy Man?”
“No, what happened?”
“Bad liver or fatty liver, the neighbors told me.”
“No wonder. I could tell his eyes were going yellow.”
“You saw that?”
“When I would back out of the driveway, I could see the yellow dots glued to me.”
“I told you, John, that house no good. Full of evil. The before owner – that lady –“
“– I know, died from a heart attack because her boys forgot to call nine-one-one.” He stole her words like knowing a song’s refrain. “It doesn’t matter. No one’s gonna miss him anyways.”
“That’s right, nobody does.”
“Well, maybe his mother – who loves him no matter what.”
“One neighbor told me he died because the doctors found out too late. They took him too late to the doctors. So – they no go until his eyes got all yellow.”
“Well – then you don’t have to worry. The Crazy Man won’t be bothering you anymore.”
“Yeah not him, but the little one will! Why can’t they both die together?”
John thought, She’s going too far. “As you taught me,” he said next in Korean: ‘Even a fish wouldn’t get in trouble if it kept its mouth shut.’”
She was annoyed that he jabbed her with her own teachings, as happens to parents. She retorted, “Don’t worry about me. Worry about you.” She paused and returned to what was on her mind. “One bad one leaves, and one bad one comes. The Uncle’s gone, but he already teach the Nephew. He no even go to school no more!”
“How do you know?”
“Because I see him every day in their front yard with that fat Mexican lady.”
“Yeah, I saw her too. She has all that blue eye shadow on, like a raccoon. She must weigh 200 pounds too. She looks like a shang nyun in those clothes. Her thighs look like rotten cheese, but she thinks she’s Madonna.”
“Yeah, her. She’s much older than him. She’s 25.”
“What’s he doing with her?”
“She come to my house one day looking for him. She was sucking on a lollipop, and she asked me, ‘Have you seen my guy? He’s white, 20, and college kid.’ Then I said, ‘Look lady, nobody except my sons gone to college here. Where he live?’ Then she pointed to the crazy man’s house. And I said, ‘Look lady, he NO COLLEGE KID! AND HE AIN’T WHITE! YOU BLIND?! YOU STUPID! HE’S 16! YOU GONNA GET IN TROUBLE IF YOU KEEP SEXING WITH HIM.’”
“So he lied to her.”
“Yeah! But they always doing nasty things behind the bushes in their front yard. Disgusting! Just like his sister. Disgusting! Just like that whole family – disgusting!” They continued to eat in silence for awhile. And then she had a thought. She started to smile and cackle – even when there was bloodied-looking rice in her mouth.
She said, “Now, I know his dream. He wants to go to college. But he ain’t ever going there. College. PSSSHHT! He don’t even go to school.”
“Why do you think that’s his dream?”
“‘Cos I see him just sitting inside that garage. Thinking and thinking. You can tell he’s dreaming. And he told that lady he’s a college kid.”
“I don’t think he can read, Mom.” What John said with words came through in his eyes.
“How do you know?”
“Do you ever see him reading a newspaper?”
“How about a magazine?”
“No. But that don’t mean he no read. Maybe, he no like reading.”
“I never seen him read in my life. Don’t you think that’s weird? We see them all the time in that garage.”
“Yeah. But he holds papers sometimes.”
“That don’t mean he can read.”
She thought about what John said, and replied, “Everyone can read in America.”
“No, Mom. I had a friend who couldn’t.”
“Really? How teachers not notice?”
“He told me he just kept quiet in class and didn’t make any trouble. Teachers never knew he was even there.”
“Just like a Mexican city. You know, they have no optometry here. Why? Because Mexicans no read.”
“Yup. In school, I saw them work really hard, but only at boxing.”
“Disgusting! That family’s disgusting!”
She was angry because the boy was part of her American society, and for some odd reason she felt like even she failed him. She could read in English and Korean, and she didn’t graduate high school.
She continued: “Sister pregnant at 13. Uncle that’s crazy, ugly, and fat. Father in jail again. And there’s all these people that go in and out of the house.”
“I know. They need to go back to San Bernardino. We have rules here. They don’t care about them.”
“Well, let them break them. The law gonna punish them. It always does, you know? The law no like people like that.”
“You know, one day I’ll be a lawyer. Then we’ll just move outta here. We can go North to Pasadena, where the white people live. You can live in the back house by yourself. Mark can live with you too.” He smiled because he knew he was talking like a wishful kid again.
“If we do that, they win. We can’t let them win!” She paused. John saw in her face that her emotional state suddenly changed. “Anyways, I’m tired of taking care of cat. Your cat! Not mine! Just makes me work harder.”
He brought the conversation back to the point. “Win what? There’s nothing to win or lose.” He threw up one of his hands in frustration. “This town is turning into trash. We don’t belong here anymore. It used to be better.”
“They look down on us, John, ‘cos we’re the only Asians on the block. We gotta show them we strong.”
“I’m pretty sure they know that already.”
“No! They look down on you,” she took a pause and stressed,“‘cos you’re small!” She then remembered, him being a lawyer was what her ex-husband always wanted, and she went bitter again. “Anyway, you go to Pasadena! I’m gonna stay here!! I’m happy alone. I no need your father. I no need your brother. And I no need you too. I live alone.”
John stayed home that following Monday instead of going West. His professor had canceled class. He saw the Nephew at nine in the morning breaking into a neighbor’s vacated home, which was on the market for sale.
He called the police. He didn’t let his mother know because he didn’t want his mother to start reveling or worrying about it.
While waiting, John was reading a book in his bedroom, which was well lit with sunshine. His cat, Mark, was curled, absorbing warmth by his feet. While he was reading Flannery O’Connor, he could hear his mother’s voice screaming, “Hey, John, come out and look.” John set the book face down on his bed and walked outside into the golden light.
The mother and son stood in their front yard and saw the police drag the Nephew out of the vacated house. They handcuffed him and walked him back to his garage.
The step-grandfather came out because the Nephew’s grandmother wasn’t home. He talked with the officer. They took off his handcuffs. The police then left.
The boy sat back down on the car seat in the garage. He saw the Chinkies staring at them. He smoked some Mary Jane because he craved it. Then, he just sat there all day with droopy and bloodshot eyes. His uncle’s bitch was sitting next to him on the car seat in the garage. Every now and then, the Nephew would pet it. When he saw John, he thought, You’re only alive because I let you live.
A few weeks later though, just seeing the Nephew sparked anger in John and his mother. He’d have a smirk on his face every time either of them made eye contact with him. But, really, the pressure in him was being all wound up. Anymore tightening and he’d snap.
The Nephew was thinking, I’m going to be a hero one day. I’m going to show everyone I’m a man. A big fucken one! I’ll have a better car than you, Chinky. Watch. I’m gonna show you I can fucken kick your ass! I’m gonna do it when no one’s lookin. And that lady, that bitch is going to be begging me for mercy. I’m gonna smash her in the mouth. Abuela and Abuelo will be proud. Everyone will be proud. And I’m gonna kick that faggot in the balls. And then I’m gonna punch his shiny white teeth out – so he don’t have any. When he’s on the floor – I’m gonna kick him in the chest. Again and again, until he spits blood. Chales?! He smiled sinisterly reflecting about it all. Then, they’ll all be proud of me. He thinks he’s so bad. I’m gonna show Mom. She’ll want me back after I show I’m a bad ass! I’ll take his car and show her. I’ll kill him and then take his car. Show her I became somebody! Yeah!
John was almost in his car, when he could see from the driveway that the Nephew was thinking about evil. His cat was sitting at the Korean family’s brick wall. Mark sensed to stay away too.
John was thinking of a way to break that boy’s spirit. He didn’t like the Nephew not going to school anymore. He didn’t like his snickers or him calling him a faggot.
He was thinking it through like chess. If I could only get him in the “system,” John thought. Once he’s in the system, they’ll over-police him. Then he won’t be our problem anymore. Put a lot of pressure on that family. They’re gonna break eventually. Just like my judo teacher said. Put the pressure on the enemy. Never let up. This forces the enemy to make mistakes. Then he remembered what the liberal professors said in his juvenile justice class. “Once they’re in the system – they stay in it forever.” Deliver them all into the hands of the government. He was so proud of himself. Although he took the class out of a genuine interest and enjoyed it, all he could think about now was how cunning he was.
While he watched the Nephew in the garage, John called the police. But the officers took four hours to come, so, when they came, the Nephew wasn’t in that garage. From the top of the cul-de-sac, he saw the school police driving to his house. So, he fled.
The officer parked in front of their house. Inside his patrol car, he typed the Nephew’s name in the computer and saw he was a truant.
The officer knocked on the door. The step-grandfather answered. The grandmother was at work. The officer asked him who was the guardian of the Nephew. The step-grandfather said that he and the grandmother were.
The officer asked him why the Nephew wasn’t going to school. The step-grandfather said because he was sick. The officer asked for the doctor’s note. The step-grandfather said it was lost. So, the officer took out his pad and issued the step-grandfather and grandmother a citation for truancy and a notice to appear at the school board.
John and his mother stood outside and heard the whole conversation. She told John, “Oh, he’s in trouble now.”
Hours later, while she was taking her evening walk, John’s Mother found the Nephew sitting on the steps of the federal project apartments, which were a few blocks away from her home. He snickered at her. And she said, “What?! You know, the police are looking for you.” The street children that surrounded the Nephew were nervous at hearing the news.
He said, “Shut up! Ain’t no police looking for me.”
“Oh, yes they are! And I know where you live!” She paused for an instance, as if she was winding an uppercut. Then, she let him have it: “AND YOU CAN’T EVEN READ!!!”
The children around him covered their mouths and giggled. “Kuh, Kuh, Kuh,” they went. The Nephew felt like she punched his core, which twitched and yanked his upper body down with it. He never felt so stupid before. He wanted to run away and hide in his garage.
The Korean mother studied his face and saw that she shattered him. She, then, smirked and walked the few blocks back to her home. When she reached the middle of the cul-de-sac, Mark saw her from the distance and ran to her. She heard his bell jingle. She yelled at him like he was her kid, “Mark! Mark! Come here!” Then, they walked to their house together.
He wanted to go home, but he had to wait. When night came, the boy thought it was safe. No police would be waiting.
Yet, when he came back home, his step-grandfather was waiting.
The Step-Grandfather said, “Come here, Ty. You really fucked up this time! Look at this.” The Grandfather’s face was dark with anger. He walked into his grandparents’ bedroom. He showed Ty the citation. “‘Cos you didn’t go to school, we have to pay a fine. We told you – how many times – to stay out of trouble.”
The boy got really scared and smiled nervously.
“You know to stay away from that fucken chinky. You know he’s gonna call the cops on you. I’m sure they called when you broke into that house. And he did it again. The school police come lookin after you. And they fined us. You know? What kind of fucken free country is this that parents get fined for their step-grand kid’s fucken behavior?! Nobody here minds their own business!”
“Abuelo! Abuelo! It’s that fucken faggot chinky’s fault! It ain’t my fault,” he said.
“I told you to stay away from them. That fucken bitch of a mother and him. But you gotta get into trouble.”
His grandmother looked at Ty and said, “Ty, how come you just can’t stay out of trouble? You’re just like your father.”
He said, “I try, Grandma. But they started it. She look at me. And he does too. He even drive fast and try to run me over.”
“I told you Ty. He’s police-happy. That family – they’re fucken crazy. They don’t mind their business, like they do at our old place.” She then turned to the step-grandfather and said, “Where’s the ticket?”
He gave her the bright yellow piece of paper. He held it in front of his eyes and said, “See this. See, we gotta go to the school board now. We gotta pay a fine for you fucking up! You know how many hours this gonna cost me? Is this how you treat us after we take you in?”
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” he said in a childish tone.
The step-grandfather turned to his wife and said, “Go out into that garage and blast up the music like he does, but not too loud so the neighbors call the police again.”
What happened next, none of the neighbors heard because she went out and dialed up blasting music.
Meanwhile, the Korean mother walked back to the house. She opened the door. Mark ran ahead of her and raced into the kitchen. When he got there, he sat there erect like a statue. John was sitting at the dining table looking over his credit card statements to see he wasn’t overcharged and turned his head and looked at Mark.
When she walked into the dining room, John and his mother noticed the cat’s behavior break from his routine, in which he walked straight to his sleeping spot in the garage.
John asked his mother, “What’s he doing?”
She said, “He must want a kwi-ket. I saw him chasing one, other day.”
“I don’t think so. He’s standing there and telling us something. Like a protest. Look; see: he keeps looking at the ‘fridge.”
She thought about it and said, “Oh, he wants meat. He saw that I took raw meat out of there this morning.”
She went to fridge, opened it, and pulled out raw flank steaks. She placed them on a cutting board. Mark smelled blood and began twitching his tail rapidly. She cut them into small pieces and threw them onto their Spanish, pink kitchen tiles.
Mark went to the pieces of meat, stepped on them with his white paws, and tore off the chunks with his molars and chewed more than usual because of the gristle and fat. He closed his eyes now and then, especially when he struggled to tear it, like one does chewing on jerky. Eating speckled his white muzzle with blood.
“Smart cat,” John said. “He has a lot more energy since we’ve been feeding him raw meat.”
“I know. Cat food – too much chemicals. I even see him jump on the roof the other day. He no do that in five years.”
“Really?!” He said smiling in awe.
Now, she really wanted to tell him about her victory. “You know, before I came home, that Nephew fun on me again.”
John caught that look of extinguished revenge dazzle in her eyes. Oh, no, he thought. “What’d you tell him?”
“Just tell truth.” She paused to add the dramatic effect and then blurted, “You can’t read!!” She smiled because she knew she slammed down at that exact point, which fractured his spirit.
By instinct, John took in a breath and felt the Nephew’s shame for an instance. Although he often wanted to punch the Nephew’s teeth out and make him cough blood, he was in a calmer state now. His intuition told him that the family would pay for this one. He needed to get that point across to his mother before it was too late.
He looked down on Mark, which looked like a Californian bobcat ripping and chewing on bloody flesh. Then he realized he didn’t even know what the Nephew’s family even ate.
He asked her, “Why’d you tell him that?”
“‘Cos he needs to learn respect.”
“Well if his family’s not teaching him, you’re not going to. Do you even know what they do inside of their house, all day?”
“I no know. I no want to know. Bad things, I’m sure.”
“Don’t you want to know at least why they do what they do?”
“You don’t get it. I know.” Her tone changed, as if she was telling him a secret. “They born that way. That’s what it is.”
He disagreed and thought through how to simplify his view for her. “I don’t know about that. It’s like Mark – you see how he got better when we gave him raw meat for his diet. Sometimes what goes in you makes you.”
“Cats and people not the same.”
“They’re more the same than you think.”
The Los Angeles spring came. There was almost no difference in the climate between winter and spring. Except it rained less, so the mountains disappeared in the brownish-grey smog and would reappear again like a magic trick after a spring shower. On this day, it was the usual weather of the valley: sunny and fair with bright blue skies.
Inside the dead-end house, John’s mother had made him Korean beef broth soup. He placed rice onto his spoon and filled it with the broth. His mother always bragged she made the best beef soup broth because she boiled the bones eight hours each day for three continuous days. She would let it cool off each night. Refrigerate it. Then a layer of lard would float and coagulate on top. She would skim it off and re-boil it again. She said the Korean restaurants cheated by adding in milk to produce the cloudy color. What took her three days to make, John would finish in 15 minutes.
From time to time, he picked out the bright yellow crab pancreas from the cracked crab carapace with his metal chopsticks and dipped it in the milky broth. In doing so, the yellow guts turned a sunny color; took on a grainy texture; and inherited a rich, roasted, and oily cashew taste. Other times, he used the carapace as a bowl and spooned rice inside of it, so it’d soak up the crab juices.
He asked her at the dining table, “Have you had any problems with that family?”
“No,” his mother said, “Things changed after school police come. I think step-father beat the hell outta him. That’s what the neighbor thinks too. Anyways: good! He deserve it!”
He finished his bowl of soup but not all the rice. Her boys had an annoying habit of never finishing their rice. Carbs are bad – they would always say.
“Yeah, they got fined. That’s why. They must’ve learned their lesson – finally,” he said. He was proud that he got the boy trapped into the system. “Alright, Mom, I gotta go. I need to study at the café.”
He walked out of the house and into his car that bright, sunny afternoon. John saw the Nephew sitting down on the van seat in their open garage with a chubby, male Chicano teenager, the only friend the Nephew had. From John’s peripheral glance, he could see the Nephew’s nude back with fresh scars that looked like scabbing fire burns. He, also, now had stubs of facial hair.
He could see the Nephew was thinking of evil again. He saw that between the Nephew’s knees, he had a rifle. Finally, he felt threatened. John didn’t like what he saw but didn’t know what the Nephew was doing or wanted to do.
He got into his car pretending like he saw nothing and backed out of the driveway. He was now in clear sight of the Nephew. The Nephew stood up and raised the gun to his shoulder level.
John saw the Nephew slide his index finger towards the trigger. It was the last thing John saw.
Instantly, it sounded like three tires had exploded. The bullets flew: one after another. The first one went too high. The second one struck his hood and bounced off. But the third one went through the windshield, cracking it and chiseling a pattern of a thousand diamonds into the glass.
The bullet hit John just above the left eye. In the instance of a thunder’s roar, blood and bits of brain splattered against the driver’s headrest. Then, his head slammed against it and sagged like a rag doll’s. Smoke steamed from the hole, which smelled like cabeza tacos. Both arms fell to his side and went limp and lifeless, like the rest of his body.
Blood bubbled out of the gunshot wound and started trickling down like the Monrovia Waterfall dribbles in drought. At the exact moment life left him, entropy began chilling his body.
The boy saw what he did, and even though he thought he would be a hero, horror and panic filled him.
John’s mother ran outside, as did the other neighbors. She first looked at his sports car not moving on the street and realized – This doesn’t look right. She stared closely at the car and saw the hole in the cracked windshield and the lifeless body inside. She turned her head to the left and then saw the boy and the rifle leaning against the car seat in the garage. She looked at the car again and then back to the Nephew. Then, she knew the truth.
The block was innervated with nerves, pulses, and receptors. Thus, through its mysterious network, every household knew what was happening and when. The effect resembled a mad flock of birds scattering out of the trees upward: fleeing – fleeing from evil harm.
The step-grandfather walked out too and thought – Oh Shit!
His grandmother went out. She registered what happened. She stood paralyzed and was filled with shock. This isn’t happening – his grandmother thought. It’s just a bad dream. Wake up! Wake up!
John’s mother got out her phone and dialed nine-one-one. “Nine-one-one!” She exclaimed. “Yes! YOU NEED TO COME HERE! COME OUT NOW! THEY SHOT MY SON! THEY KILLED MY SON!”
The operator with a tone that indicated she finally got the call, said, “Please, slow down. Where is your address? What is your phone number?”
She said, “MY SON! THEY KILLED MY SON! JOHN!! THEY KILLED HIM!!!” Her voice cracked at shouting the last sentence. She eventually managed to tell the operator what she needed to know.
The boy listened to the whole nine-one-one call. The Chicano family stood there, just watching him and waiting for them. Ty just sat on the car seat in the open garage until the police came. Five police cars came. Two in each one, except for the sergeant who drove alone. They surrounded the open garage. Eight officers pointed a gun at the boy.
The sergeant, a white man in his mid-thirties who had a mustache, said, “Put your hands high up where we can see them.”
The Nephew obeyed.
Then he said, “On your knees. Put your hands behind your back.”
He obeyed again.
The officer handcuffed him.
Ty walked barefooted with the sergeant to his police car. The sergeant then turned to his step-Grandfather and said, “You need to get him a shirt and some shoes.”
The step-Grandfather brought him a big white tee shirt and some flip flops. He put the shirt over him because the Nephew was handcuffed. He then threw the flip flops on the floor. Ty shuffled his feet into the flip flops, but because his hands were cuffed behind him, he looked like a sick rooster strutting.
His grandmother said, “Ty, we’ll come see ya soon. Ok?”
Hands pinned behind him, Ty lowered his head and entered the back seat of the police car. It was finished – he thought. Then, the Nephew’s grin reemerged.
A few weeks later, John’s mother was cleaning up his room, while wearing an apron he bought her from Spain. It was black with bright red circles, like a lady bug’s skin. She decided to keep his childhood room just the way it was, frozen in time.
She could smell his sweat though. She complained about that “bachelor” smell, even though it was mildly sweet too. Now, she hoped it would never leave. She even grabbed the comforter for a moment and buried her face in it and inhaled a deep breath through her nostrils. It felt like he was there, but then she had to painfully remind herself: He’s gone.
She went numb and cold again. Life goes on.
When her younger boy left her to get married, she threw out all his stuff and exorcised her house of his presence. In her mind, he abandoned her. When her husband divorced her, she donated all his belonging to the Salvation Army. She believed he left her too. But John was different. He was taken.
She found a small shoe box on the upper ledge of his closet. She took it down and rummaged through it. In it, she found the place where he kept his important documents. She took out his birth certificate and read it to herself. John Kim born on June twentieth, nineteen eighty seven. She saw the location – Los Angeles County Hospital. She remembered his intense birth. Then the tears started welling up in her eyes.
She reminded herself: Life goes on. The tears receded.
She put it down and saw what else was in there. She found his dark blue American Passport. She flipped through the pages. She looked at the stamps and the dates of them. He went to France, England, and Italy when he was an undergrad. She always wanted to go to Europe.
Then she remembered him talking about how his favorite meal was in Cinque Terra. Handmade pasta with fresh pesto. He told her over breakfast that he ate pasta on top of a cliff overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea, where it had no sand like Californian beaches. During that talk, she told him to snap out of his fantasies because he would soon have to work and grow up. He said that the memory left him with a dream. He would live by the seaside one day. He said his mother could live in the back house and take care of chickens, like the kind she had as a kid. Mark would be with them too.
He was always full of such silly dreams. Such a stupid kid, she thought. Her angry thoughts sprang by automated habit whenever she couldn’t make out if he was talking serious or just spouting nonsense again. He always babbled about being this or doing that. Dreams that never happened. Then she took a deep breath and realized no matter how stupid his ideas were, she could never tell him he was wrong.
Nothing would ever happen by him, for him, with him, or to him, now. She started feeling the tears break through her hardened spirit. She could almost hear his voice replay that breakfast conversation. We won’t be having breakfast anymore, she thought. So, she whispered to herself, “It’s ok.” Then said, “Life goes on.”
Outside John’s bedroom window, in the backyard, Mark was meowing loudly. The cat wanted to be let into the house. He had stayed in the backyard for hours, but she intentionally ignored his stupid cat.
Part of her no longer wanted to react to what remained in that box. But she had the need to know, which at first was like a never-ending leak, but with time took on a turbulence that possessed her with damning curiosity. What more was in there?
She found a plain white business envelope. It was titled, “John Kim’s Will.” She sat down on the floor. She opened it. It was on a piece of plain white paper. John handwrote his will. He wrote it after taking wills and trust at law school. It said in his messy handwriting,
I John Kim write this will, which is to be probated upon my death. If my brother and parents die before me, then my assets should go to my Baptist church, Hallelujah Korean Church. Otherwise, I give my cars to my younger brother. I hope they bring you as much fun as they brought me. My stocks, cash, and remainder to my mother and father to be shared equally, except for my cat Mark. He goes to my mother. Mom, please take good care of him because he loves you no matter what.
She noted that the date was a few weeks before the Nephew killed him. She read it again. Pain seeped and seeped, until it cracked through her weakest point. And like a smashing tsunami, without warning and all at once: Grief flooded her. She released her agony in a loud wail.
Against her heart, she clutched the plain piece of paper, as if it was a gauze, and said, “It’s their fault! Their fault! Not mine!” She couldn’t control herself from shrieking and shaking and sobbing anymore.
Meanwhile, Mark walked around the house to the screen door which never latched properly because she never fixed it. He slid his paw through the space between and moved the screen door away until he could fit through. His red bell jingled as he loped through the living room and into the hallway, until he stopped at the front door of John’s bedroom. He was going to meow in protest for not being let in. But, instead, he smelled all was not right with her, in the way that animals sense to understand the nature of other creatures.
Mark then crossed through the doorway and walked towards her. He rubbed his pink nose against her fingers for a few moments. Then the cat stepped into the well of her lap. In what looked like the most coordinated, single motion: he swirled his head down towards his tail, curling into a ball that pressed against her apron. They felt each other’s warmth; even with her tears streaming down, she scratched his head, and he oscillated his tail up and down, while purring.
Thanks to my editor, Yoon Son, whose belief and criticisms of this piece encouraged me to finish it. To Chi Yon Cook, I love you, Mom. Thanks for all the rich experiences, which includes the great food and much, much more. Nonetheless, all these experiences can be traced to growing up in your Korean-American kitchen. Thanks to my cat Luke for introducing me to all the whimsical and mysterious moments and memories.