The Morning after the Hometown Diner Burned Down
by Mike Alberti

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

The summer we were fourteen, Nick McFadden and I found an abandoned camper in the mudflats along the Watonwan River, about a mile outside of town. It was one of those boxy aluminum trailers, painted white with a bright green stripe on the side, and it was a wreck. The paint was chipping and the undercarriage was rotted with rust and the inside was saturated with a sour, moldy smell that clung to your clothes and hair. The front end of the camper rested squarely in the mud, which made it look as though it had nosedived out of the sky and landed there by the river. But it had a booth-style table, a foldout bed, and a working propane stove, and Nick and I took bleach and rags from my house and spent a long afternoon scrubbing it out, and when we were done it was still a wreck, but clean enough for our purposes.

What were our purposes? Passing time, mostly. Playing cards, swimming, fishing for carp, throwing rocks into an old coffee can, smoking cigarettes stolen from our mothers’ purses. Nick had an old, out of tune guitar that he sometimes strummed.

Daydreaming. We felt too old to lose ourselves in some make-believe game as we might have a year or two earlier, but we channeled that imaginary impulse into fantasies involving older girls and plans for our escape. We sat at the table and dreamt up elaborate scenarios in which the camper figured prominently. It didn’t matter that it was stuck in the mud, or that we had no car to tow it: we were going to leave our little town behind, sleep in truck stops and parking lots, drive down to Chicago, or all the way to California. We would work in peach orchards like in The Grapes of Wrath, dig potatoes from roadside fields, pick up beautiful hippie hitchhikers who would paint our faces and give us new names. On the back of the trailer, in faded green letters, was the word “Oasis.”

Nick was the source of most of these schemes. He’d moved to Madelia the previous summer, and before that he’d lived in other places ⎯ Arizona, Idaho, Detroit ⎯ that sounded exotic to my ears. This gave him a certain authority, a worldliness. He kept his hair a little longer than my mother would allow. He provided most of the cigarettes. He loved Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, and sang their songs loudly while strumming his guitar, unembarrassed by his cracking voice.

Nick got ahold of a Rand McNally atlas and he would spread it open on the table and trace routes with a pencil while I lay back on the bed and smoked and listened.

“We haven’t even talked about Alaska,” he said. “We could make Anchorage in a week, easy, but we might want to spend some time in Canada on the way.”

“Saskatchewan,” I said.

“The Yukon,” Nick said. “The Northwest Territories.”

I’d never been more than a day’s drive from Madelia. My youth had been quiet and solitary. I was a scrawny, timid kid who preferred books to sports. My parents did not farm; my father worked for the real estate office. I kept to myself, watchful, like I was protecting a secret.

That was before Nick arrived. The first week of school, soon after he moved to town, Nick and I were matched as reading partners. I’d already done all of the reading over the summer, and I recounted the plot of Huckleberry Finn while he sat half-listening, cleaning his nails. We had different classes in the afternoon, and I didn’t see him again until after school, when he appeared out of nowhere as I was walking home and fell into step with me, wheeling his bike. He must have been waiting for me in the parking lot.

“Hey,” he said casually, flipping his shaggy hair. “So, what’s there to do in this podunk town?”

I was surprised, but also pleased. It felt like I’d been chosen.

Of course, there wasn’t anything to do in that podunk town. Over the next weeks, we fell into a routine, wandering the streets after school.  I showed him the library, Flander’s Park, the picnic tables outside the One-Stop Market where boys too young to drive congregated on weekend nights to watch the street traffic. We sat in the bleachers and watched football practice, cheerleading try-outs. Nick took it all in contemptuously: the farm-boys driving their tractors down Main Street, the old men sitting all afternoon outside Oak Barrel. He seemed genuinely perplexed at the twist of fate that had landed him in our town.

And as the year went on, I began to see Madelia through Nick’s eyes. I’d always understood that our town was boring and slow, but I’d accepted this as a fact of life. What else could I do? That year, though, Nick’s scorn awakened something inside me: a vision of myself, someplace else. In the trailer, while Nick planned our escape, I think I knew deep down that it was a game, just make-believe. But at the same time, as I listened to him say Memphis, New Orleans, San Francisco, Cape Cod, the names took on a new meaning. The weight of possibility.

Saskatchewan. The Yukon. The Northwest Territories. That summer, I would have followed him anywhere.

~

Nick needed those daydreams. His family had moved to Madelia because his father had taken over the Hometown Diner, a restaurant on 7th Street that had been struggling even before the recession and which now threatened to go under at any time. But it wasn’t only that times were tough. The place just carried an atmosphere of failure. Anyone could see it: in the chipped paint on the facade, the stained yellow linoleum, the dead flowers in vases on the tables. Or, more intangibly, in the sad tilt of the “Open for Business” sign and in the way that the afternoon light canted in through the dirty front windows, dense and watery and polluted with dust.

More than anything though, the doomed quality emanated from Nick’s father. He exuded failure, gave it off like fumes. His name was Nick too, but people just called him McFadden. He and Nick looked alike, with the same dark hair, strong nose, and heavy, brooding brow. On Nick, these features were counterbalanced with a quick, broad smile, but on his father they were combined with a slouch, a thick neck and a mean, squint-eyed glare. At the restaurant he cooked on an open range behind the counter, hunched, sweating, mumbling under his breath, a cigarette burning down in the ashtray next to him, and he seemed the very picture of frustration and disappointment.

He drank. This was known but not talked about. He drank and he was bad with money. Nick’s father had taken over the diner from his wife’s uncle when he died, and he’d borrowed a lot of money to do it. I knew this not from Nick but from my own father, who was generally reticent about other people’s affairs, but who’d said more than once in my hearing that it was a shame how Nick’s father was running that place into the ground.

And there were the occasional outbursts that occurred at the restaurant, directed towards Nick’s mother ⎯ a tall, red-haired woman who ran the register and delivered food ⎯ or towards a customer who’d crossed some arbitrary line by asking for a steak to be cooked a little longer or reminding Nick’s father that he’d ordered his eggs over-easy, not scrambled. I’d heard about these eruptions before, but that spring I saw one myself.

One evening I’d stopped by the restaurant to meet Nick, who sometimes worked washing dishes and bussing tables during the dinner rush. We were going to ride down to the high school to watch a basketball game, but Nick had a pile of dishes that he needed to finish, so I sat down at one of the tables to wait.

It was around seven-thirty and the place was nearly empty, just two solitary men eating at the counter. Baseball season had just started and there was a Twins game on the little portable radio beside the cash register. Nick’s mother brought me a Coke and smiled and said that Nick would be done in a few minutes. She was always a friendly woman, with a quick smile and a bright laugh. I thought she was beautiful, too, and I remember noticing her beauty again in that moment. Her hair, a few strands of which had come undone, caught the light and seemed to glow.

I thanked her and she resumed chatting amiably with one of the customers, a young man in a brown suit who wasn’t from Madelia. Maybe a salesman passing through. Nick’s father was sitting at a small table in the far corner of the restaurant, logging the day’s receipts in a notebook, and I could see Nick with his arms sunk to the elbows in the big sink behind the counter. For a moment it seemed to me that the doomed climate of the place had been lifted, or put on hold. There was a buoyancy in the air, a feeling of optimism and satisfaction, of a hard day’s work well-done and ending.

Then the salesman said something that I couldn’t hear and Nick’s mother laughed loudly with her head thrown back and her hand on her chest. Her laughter rang through the restaurant and faded away, and in the quiet afterwards there was some new feeling, a stiffness, a tense anticipation. I didn’t understand it, but I could feel it; my mouth went dry. A moment later Nick’s father rose from the table and crossed the room with quick, decisive strides. He picked up the man’s glass and threw the water in his face.

“What in the hell?” The salesman stood up quickly from his stool and wiped his face with his napkin. “Are you crazy?” he yelled. “What’s the matter with you?”

“You better get your ass out of here,” Nick’s father said. His voice was raised but he wasn’t shouting, which somehow made him seem even more menacing. “This is a nice town, and we don’t need your kind around here.”

“My kind ⎯ ” the salesman said, confused.

“You’re the kind who comes into a nice family restaurant and tries to pick up a man’s wife, maybe leaves a hotel room number on the napkin. You’re about as low as a snail.”

Now he was jabbing his finger at the man’s chest. His face was red, livid, horrible; a vein bulged from his forehead. “You’re lower than a damn snail!” he yelled. “I’ll wipe you off my shoe.”

“Jesus, man. You’re nuts.” The man looked around for a moment, then shook his head and took out his wallet.

“We don’t need your damn snail money in here,” Nick’s father said. “Just get your ass out on the street where you belong.”

“You’re nuts,” the man said again. He turned and walked hurriedly past me out of the restaurant. While the little bell above the door was still jingling, Nick’s mother picked the salesman’s coffee mug up off the counter and threw it hard on the floor. The sounds cracked through the room. I flinched, brought my hands up to cover my face, and when I dropped them again I saw her storm silently out from behind the counter and through the swinging double doors that led back to the kitchen.

For a moment, the diner was full of heavy stillness. Nick’s father seemed suddenly deflated. His eyes looked down blankly at the counter. The other customer ⎯ Mr. Perkins, who worked at the bank ⎯ stood up silently, threw a bill down on the counter, and turned to walk out. As he passed me, he said, “Come on, kid,” and nodded towards the door.

I got to my feet but paused and looked back at Nick. He was stone-faced, glaring at his father. There was no fear in that look, or pity. It was hate, clear and sharp as glass, and when, a moment later, he looked back to me, that hate was still there, pointed at me like a gun. But a beat later it softened, and in its place was something else, something I recognized immediately: shame.

I turned and walked out the door. Outside, in the warm twilight, the street was still and quiet. I didn’t know what to do, whether I should leave or stick around, but it seemed wrong to just abandon Nick there. I crossed the street and leaned against the front of the pharmacy to wait. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I knew something about shame.

My mother sometimes went through periods of depression, during which she stopped looking after things. When it wasn’t a bad episode, this only meant that my father would pick up dinner on his way home from work or cook spaghetti or hamburgers for us. Sometimes it was worse than that, though. Sometimes she would not eat, would barely move from the living room sofa for a week or more, and the whole room would take on her musky smell. Sometimes she looked at me through hazy eyes, and I wasn’t sure if she recognized me at all.

One afternoon, she’d asked me from where she lay on the sofa with the shades drawn to bring her the telephone, and I’d watched her call my father at the real estate office. “You better come home,” she said in a voice that was formal and matter-of-fact but also full of meaning, desperation, a lurking threat. “Hurry,” she said and hung up and looked at me, her hair undone and her eyes flat and her lips slightly parted. I felt a strange terror ⎯she might do something awful, unspeakable ⎯but also, at the same time, a deep, saturating shame. I wanted to flee, to burst out of that dark, airless room into the outside world and breathe.

Nick burst out of the diner and without looking around, he stormed down the sidewalk. I pulled in line with him on my bike and dismounted. We walked for a few minutes in silence. I was waiting for him to speak first. We turned the corner of 4th Avenue towards the high school and he stopped for a moment and lit a cigarette.

“Fuck him,” he said dismissively. “Fuck him and fuck this whole town. This whole damn town is sinking, and I’ll be cracked if I’ll go down with the ship.”

He passed me the cigarette and I took a drag. It felt like we were sharing something, that we were allies, co-conspirators. As we walked down to the school, I could feel the whole dark world swell around the edges of our town. I could hear it there, humming.

“Just a matter of time,” Nick said. “This place is going down.”

And it seemed to me, too, that some disaster was impending, crouched and waiting in the dark.

~

As it happened, the disaster struck in late July, at the end of a long heat wave. Nick and I were down at the mud flats, which, in the absence of rain had turned into hard, crusty dirt. It was too hot to stay inside the trailer so we set up in a shady spot by the riverbank. The water was low and brown with silt, but periodically we would each rise from the bank, wade out into the river, and lie down in the shallows to cool off. Otherwise, we watched the water flow slowly past. The day was passing with the same liquid slowness. We didn’t talk much. Nick seemed a little withdrawn, but that wasn’t unusual: he had his moods. I didn’t ask him about it. I figured I had my moods, too, and left him alone.

We were playing Blackjack, throwing the cards down on a flat rock in the shade. Suddenly, Nick rose to his feet, shaded his eyes, and peered off over the trees.

“Jack,” he said. “Look.”

I rose too and squinted through my glasses. Smoke. Unmistakable, a grey column that rose above the trees and pierced the clear blue of the western sky.

It only took us ten minutes to get to town, but we smelled the smoke even earlier, a sharp, chemical smell. The streets were nearly empty, and we rode through them wordlessly. We slowed as we got closer ⎯ the smoke hurling up into the air above the buildings ⎯ trying to prolong the moments before we’d be confronted with what seemed inevitable. I knew it was the diner. It felt preordained, as if that fate had been locked in on that night in the spring when I’d witnessed Nick’s father’s outburst. I think Nick felt it, too, and neither of us spoke as we approached 7th Street, too afraid to articulate what we already knew.

We heard the crowd before we turned the corner. The whole town was packed together on the narrow street. The smell was stronger now, and I could hear the fire ⎯ a huge whooshing sound, like fast-moving water, punctuated by the occasional crack and spit ⎯ but we couldn’t see it yet through all the people.

Nick turned and looked at me for a moment, and I held his gaze, waiting to see what he would do. Then he dropped his bike on the asphalt and rushed forward into the crowd.

I followed him, pushing through the mass of bodies. I saw people I knew ⎯ Mrs. Schraeder, who taught fourth grade; Mr. Lewiston from the grocery store; a group of older girls from the high school; Pastor Paul from church ⎯ all huddled together there, sweating in the heat, craning their necks to see. I made my way through them, searching for Nick, but when I got to the front of the crowd, I stopped too.

Most of the diner’s roof had already collapsed and the flames rose several feet above where it had been. The two front windows were broken and the fire curved up out of them, like upturned palms. The walls were black, charred, and the smoke was tremendous, swirling furiously up into the sky. Only fifty feet away, I could feel the heat of the fire on my face like a horrible breath. I stood and watched for what felt like a long time, and for a while I wasn’t thinking about Nick at all; I was hypnotized, transfixed by the power of the fire, its indifference to us, its ravenous hunger.

The police had blocked off the street with yellow tape for a few dozen yards in either direction. In that space our town’s two volunteer firemen were standing, each holding a long hose aimed at the buildings on either side of the diner, trying to protect them. It was clear ⎯ to me, to everyone ⎯ that the diner itself was beyond saving.

“Did you ever see a thing like that?” said a voice next to me.

I looked up. It was Craig Dawson, who worked for the farmer’s union. He whistled and shook his head. “Lordy, ain’t it something?”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Grease fire, they’re saying. They called up to Mankato for help, but I don’t see much use in it now. That place is gone.”

“Grease fire,” I repeated. I was a little stunned, not thinking straight.

“That’s what they’re saying.” Craig leaned in towards me and lowered his voice. “Miracle no one was hurt. They pulled him out of there right before the whole place went up.”

“Who?” I asked.

Who?” He frowned. “Who do you think, kid? McFadden!”

The name brought me reeling back to myself.

“Where is he?” I asked frantically. “Is he dead?”

Craig’s frown deepened. “Dead? No, he’s not dead. He’s right over there.”

He pointed to where Nick’s father sat, in front of the pharmacy, on the other side of the yellow police tape. Someone had brought him a chair. He slouched in it, his head hanging. He wasn’t even looking at the fire. His white shirt had big, grey stains across the chest, and his face was smudged with soot or smoke or ash.

Then I saw Nick, standing on the sidewalk at the corner of the crowd. He wasn’t watching the fire, either; he was watching his father. The look was the same, though. He stared at his father in the same way that you’d watch any doomed, self-consuming thing. Nick was surrounded by people, but separate; he looked totally, hopelessly alone.

I weaved through the crowd until I stood next to him. He kept his eyes on his father, but he must have known I was there. “Look at him,” he said. “Dead to the world.”

He was right. I saw now that his father was stupendously drunk. I’m not sure I’d seen that type of drunkenness before, but somehow I recognized it immediately: the slight sway of his body, the sightless, squinted eyes. On the ground between his legs I noticed a clear glass bottle, and at almost the same instant that I saw it, he picked it up, lifted it to his face, and took a long drink with his head thrown back. When he was finished, he lowered the bottle and turned his head slowly in our direction. It was such a slow, idle movement that he reminded me of a large animal, a cow or a buffalo. He looked almost surprised to see us all there, as though he hadn’t realized that a crowd had gathered.

Around us now tiny white flakes of ash were falling, roused from the smoldering wreckage by the firemen’s hoses. They fell like snow, settling onto our hair, our shoulders, our shoes. A flake landed on Nick’s eyelashes; he raised his hand absentmindedly and brushed it away.

Then he was moving, ducking underneath the police tape, taking short, quick steps towards his father, who seemed oblivious. For a moment I thought Nick might hit him, but instead he grabbed the bottle from his father’s hand and, in one smooth motion, he turned and threw it towards the fire. It rose in a high arc, spinning ⎯ the glass glinting in the sun, vodka spilling as it turned in the air ⎯ and landed unspectacularly in the burning remains of the diner. A fireman turned and yelled, but by then Nick had started yelling too.

“Look what you did! You drunk! Look! Look!”

He was facing his father but pointing behind him at the fire. He took a step forward and stuck his finger in his father’s face.

“This is your fault! You worthless drunk! You shit! It’s your fault!”

I was shocked. It was as if Nick had transformed from the boy I knew into someone else altogether. He had shed childhood like a skin. There was something familiar about the evenness of Nick’s voice as he shouted, the way he was standing and jabbing his finger. It reminded me of the night his father had yelled at the salesman in the diner. I was dumbstruck, full of fear and awe.

His father, meanwhile, sat there with the same confused expression on his face; he was beyond anger now. He frowned up into Nick’s face like he couldn’t remember who he was.

“It’s your fault!” Nick yelled again, more softly now. “Look what you did!” And I heard the quiver in his voice, the break, and I knew that he was on the verge of crying, and he was restored again to the Nick I knew.

At that moment, two men from the crowd stepped forward. They moved to take hold of Nick, but before they reached him, he turned away from his father and stormed back towards the crowd. He passed by me without looking up, but I knew to follow him, again.

I caught up with Nick where we’d left our bicycles lying in the street. He picked his up and straddled it. I wanted to say something to him, to console him. I wanted to let him know that I’d do anything, whatever he wanted. “Nick,” I said, but stopped there, waiting for him speak.

He looked at me. His eyes were red and I could see the tear stains on his face, but he wasn’t crying now.

“We’ve got to go,” he said calmly. “Tonight. We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I have some money, a little. We’ll need some other stuff, though. Some food and stuff. Blankets. Can you take care of that?”

His voice was flat, soothing, like he was talking to a dog, or a much younger child.

“Blankets. Okay, yeah.”

“Good,” he said, nodding. “Good. Then meet me at the river. You’ll get the stuff and meet me there later, tonight?”

“Okay,” I said again. “Tonight.”

He smiled slightly, a wry, world-weary half-smile. I was so relieved to see it that I almost started crying myself. I loved him, painfully. Then he rode off down the street, and I stood watching him until he was around the corner and out of sight.

~

There was nowhere for me to go but home. I rode slowly through town, into the wide, shady streets of my neighborhood. Through the trees that lined my street I saw that the sky was growing dark; a bank of dark clouds was rolling in. It was as though the smoke from the fire had risen into the sky and been transfigured there into a heavy grey carpet. The air was dense with the smell of rain.

I walked into the kitchen. My father was standing at the counter, chopping onions.

“See the fire?” he said without looking at me.

“Yeah,” I said, warily. I was afraid to talk about it, afraid that I’d somehow give away our plan.

“It’s a miracle no one was hurt.”

I wanted to go up to my room, but I sensed there was something else he wanted to say. My father was a good, honest man, who liked nothing more than to spend Sunday afternoons smoking his pipe and playing chess with himself. He was quiet and humble, and I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice. So when he wanted to say something, I paid attention.

After a moment, he stopped chopping and turned to face me. “Seen Nick?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He was down there.”

“He okay?”

I shrugged. “I guess.”

My father nodded, frowning. “Listen,” he said. “I looked up the file on the restaurant at work.”

My father worked for the real estate company, and usually his job couldn’t have been less interesting to me. But now I was listening intently.

“Okay,” I said. “And?”

“Well, Nick’s father didn’t have any insurance on that place.”

“So?” I said, not understanding what he was getting at. “What does that mean?”

He looked down at the floor and sighed. “It means he’s ruined.”

The tone of his voice and the way he averted his eyes made me nervous. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be “ruined.” The idea was nebulous to me. In Mankato I’d seen people begging for money, and I knew people in our town who were poor, but those associations seemed distant. Now though, as the word hung in the air, it had a strange new gravity. It made everything feel terrifyingly real. If they were ruined, then nothing was stopping Nick from running away, and what had been a hazy fantasy solidified with a new, crushing weight. I stood in the kitchen looking at my father—his rumpled pants and receding hair-line, his kind, open face⎯ with the smell of dinner in the air, remembering the promise I’d made, and I was scared to leave it all behind.

After a moment, he turned back to cooking.

“Go in and see your mother,” he said. “Dinner in fifteen minutes.”

I went into the living room, where my mother was lying on the sofa. The blinds were drawn and the room was dim. That room was always dim, always musty and close. It seemed like the thick cushions and heavy drapes had absorbed all the light and the air.

When I walked in, she opened her eyes and smiled.

“Jack,” she said softly. “Come here.”

She sat up, slowly, sleepily. Her loose, untidy dark hair fell across her face and she pushed it back behind her ears. This was not a bad episode, I knew. She would say later that she’d just had a headache. I walked over and sat down next to her and she put her arms around me. She smelled like mint tea and stale sweat. Sometimes, when she was like that, she just wanted to hold me.

For a few minutes, she stroked my hair, put her face into my neck and breathed. I sat stiffly and let her, but as it went on, I felt that I was being smothered. I hated that room, that musty smell. I wanted to break away, to run back outside into the light. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her, scream at her, tell her to get up off the couch, to make dinner, to put the radio on and dance lightly around the kitchen while she cooked, like she did on her best days. Instead, I let her hold me, and turned my mind back to the trailer where Nick was waiting, and I started to make a list of all the things we would need.

~

That night, after my parents were in bed, I stole out of my room and packed. Besides my clothes and some extra things for Nick, which I put in my school backpack, I filled a duffel bag with sheets and blankets, flashlights, matches, two mugs and two sets of silverware, a pot and a frying pan, a loaf of bread, a stick of butter, some ham and cheese from the refrigerator, and several cans of beans. I took a can of coffee, too. We didn’t drink coffee yet, but it seemed like we might want to start. When it was all packed, I took one last look around my kitchen, which seemed strangely normal, undisturbed. Then I went out the door and got on my bike and, with the duffel positioned awkwardly across the handlebars, I rode off to meet Nick.

It was an unusually dark night. The clouds blocked the moon. After I got out of town, I had to wait a few moments for my eyes to adjust. I couldn’t even see the road. The air was still charged with threatening rain, and the wind had picked up. Riding out to the river on the county highway, I could hear the corn thrashing in the fields.

As I approached the turnoff to the mudflats, I saw a fluttering light through the trees, and as I got closer I saw that Nick had made a fire there in the dirt and was sitting next to it on a log. When he saw me, he stood up and rushed to help me with the bags.

“Oof,” he groaned theatrically as he hoisted the duffel. “I don’t think we’re going to need all these encyclopedias.”

I laughed. I was relieved to find him cheerful, eager; I’d been vaguely worried that he might have changed his mind. We brought the bags into the trailer and, using the flashlight to see, we did an inventory of what I’d brought. Nick was impressed. “Good,” he said. “We can get by on this for a week, I think, maybe two.”

He took the bread, ham, and cheese from the bag and made himself a sandwich on the narrow counter beside the stove; he’d been out there all night, I realized, without eating dinner. On the table I saw the atlas spread open, and with the flashlight I sat down to look.

“I think I’ve got it all figured out,” Nick said, chewing. “We’ll need to find a place to stay as soon as possible, and I think our best shot is to look for work on a farm, where they might have a bunkhouse or a barn we can sleep in. I think we should head west, back through town. We’ll have to hitchhike. Someone’ll pick us up on Highway 60. Here.” He pointed.  “I think we should head over towards Sioux Falls. We need to get some money together. I’ve got twenty bucks, but it’ll go fast.”

“Where’d you get twenty bucks?” I asked him. I’d never had that much money.

“My mom gave it to me,” he said quickly.

Just then, there was a violent roll of thunder. We hushed as the echoes reverberated, and then I heard the sound of raindrops on the roof.

It was a real summer storm, the rain the farmers had been waiting for all month. The noise of the rain on the metal roof of the trailer was loud enough that we had to raise our voices.

“Shit,” Nick said. “We’ll have to wait it out.”

He unfolded the bed from the back wall of the trailer and covered it with the sheets and blankets I’d brought. “We can leave early in the morning. I’m going to get some sleep.”

I went on studying the map in the flashlight’s yellow beam. Sioux Falls, South Dakota. On the map, it looked very close ⎯ about a hundred miles away ⎯ but the name was so strange and foreign it might as well have been a thousand. I was beginning to feel tense and nervous, and I wanted Nick to stay awake and keep planning in his easy, assured voice.

“Nick,” I said softly. Perhaps too softly to be heard over the rain, or perhaps he was already asleep.

I didn’t feel tired, but I went over to the bed and lay down next to him. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the rain. After a while, I began to hear Nick’s breathing next to me. It was even and rhythmic, soft and slow, and I took from it what comfort I could.

~

The rain stopped close to dawn, and the silence woke me up with a start. I sat up in bed and blinked, trying to remember where I was. It was still dark, but gradually I made out the shapes in the trailer. Nick was still asleep, curled up facing the wall.

I put on my shoes and went outside. Everything was very still and quiet. The rain had left a wet, earthy smell in the air, and I could hear the humming of insects in the trees and the faint sound of the newly-swollen river. The ground was deep mud, and I stood on a half-submerged railroad tie that Nick and I had put outside the camper door. The clouds had cleared and the moon had already set. I could see the stars and, in the east, the pale band of morning. I stood there for a while, remembering. It was like a light switched on in my head, and the events of the previous day swarmed back to me.

Woken too by the silence, perhaps, Nick came out and stood beside me. He blinked and rubbed the sleep from his face. I watched him in the feeble new light, waiting for him to call it all off, but he spit into the mud and said, “Ready to go?”

I nodded. I had promised, after all. We went back in and gathered our things.

As we were leaving, we stopped and looked back at the trailer.

“Goodbye, Oasis,” Nick said.

“Goodbye,” I said, and we rode away towards town.

Around us, the world was appearing, the trees and fields, all of it rain-freshened. Everything seemed different than it had the night before ⎯ more solid, more real ⎯ and I think Nick felt it too. Neither of us said anything as we rode.

The sun was nearly up when we entered town. At the intersection of 2nd Avenue and 3rd Street, we paused. To get to the highway, we would need to go left; turning right would lead us into town. I waited for him to choose.

“I want to see it,” Nick said. “One last time.” I nodded, and we turned right, just as we’d done the day before.

We rode through the empty town to 7th Street, where we turned and stopped in front of the burned wreckage of the diner. There wasn’t much left: most of the front wall had collapsed, along with the roof. Further back, a few beams were still standing, and there was a foot or so of charred debris on the ground. I could see the shape of the counter and the grill behind it, now fully black. There was a line of yellow police tape strung between the adjacent buildings.

“Ruined,” I murmured without thinking. The word left my mouth and floated off into the gathering light.

Nick let out a long sigh, like some world-weary traveler. “He kept a cash box under the counter,” he said. “It was metal. Could have survived.” I looked at him, not quite understanding. “Could be a couple hundred bucks in there.”

I looked again at the rubble, frowning; the idea that anything had survived seemed ludicrous to me. But Nick set the duffel bag down on the ground and dropped his bike there and, ducking under the police tape, he walked into the ruins through the space where the door had been. I paused for a moment, but then, as always, I followed him.

I wondered if the debris would be hot, but it wasn’t; the rain must have cooled it off. Charred and waterlogged, it crumbled under my feet. It still held the smell of fire, like doused coals. Most of it was indistinguishable, just black and grey mush, but as I waded through I began to make out definite, recognizable shapes: a hand-crank for a window, the base of a lamp, one of the vases that had sat on the tables. It was amazing: the day before this soft, shapeless mass of rubble had been wood and plaster, tables and chairs. Now, nothing. Gone.

Nick was ahead of me, on the other side of where the counter had been, kicking around in the rubble.

“It’s got to be here somewhere,” he said.

I made my way to him and began kicking around too. My shoes and the cuffs of my jeans had turned black with soot. Nick knelt down and began combing through the debris with his hands, and I joined him. The way I remember it, we dug through the mess for a long time, searching. Beneath the wet top layer of ash, the rubble still held the warmth of the fire. We dug and dug, ruining our clothes, and our search took on a kind of desperation. We were looking for the money, but I think it was more important that we find something, anything that we could save.

Of course it was hopeless. The fire had been too powerful. The mess was too big.

But we did find it.

I did. Just as we were about to give up, I kicked aside a large, solid chunk of burned wood and something underneath it caught the light, flashed sharply like a mirror.

“Nick,” I said, standing back, not quite ready to believe. “Look.”

Together we looked down at the smudged metal box lying there among the ashes.

Nick bent down and picked up the box. He held it for a moment, the early light reflecting off the metal into his face.

It seemed impossible, but there it was.

“Open it,” I said.

He did, slowly. It wasn’t locked and offered no resistance. Inside, I saw a few rolls of change and four neat, clipped stacks of ones, fives, tens, and twenties.

“Holy shit,” I said.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t all that much money ⎯ maybe a couple hundred dollars ⎯ but it was certainly more cash than I’d ever seen in one place. Looking at it, I felt a strange mixture of disappointment and relief, exhilaration and fear. I think that in the back of my mind, I’d been counting on the inevitable failure of our escape plan. We would be gone for a couple of days, I figured, before we got scared or hungry and came home, or before we were picked up hitchhiking by a state trooper. Now though, anything seemed possible.

Nick reached into the open box and pulled out something else, something small that caught the light. He held it up in front of his eyes, and I saw that it was a ring, a gold band with a small, square diamond. I frowned at it, confused. When I looked back at Nick, I saw that slow tears were running down his cheeks.

“Nick,” I sputtered. I didn’t understand what was wrong, but I wanted to comfort him, to hold him. Perhaps sensing that I might touch him, he shook his head, put the ring back in the box, closed the lid, and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

“I’ve got to go home now, Jack,” he said, and without waiting for me to say anything, he turned and began trudging back through the debris to our bikes. I stood there for a moment, confused, and then I followed him. On the sidewalk, he picked up his bike and threw his leg over it, the cash box wedged under his arm. “I can’t leave him,” he said. “I’m all he’s got left now.”

“What do you mean?”

“She left,” he said.

“What?”

“She left,” he said again. “She left him.”

“Who did?”

“My mom. She left us. A few days ago. She went to stay with my aunt in Sioux Falls.”

Sioux Falls. I thought for a moment, trying to understand. Through everything, through the fire and the scene in the street between Nick and his father, through the night spent next to him in the trailer and the morning spent rooting around in the debris, I hadn’t thought about his mother at all, hadn’t wondered where she was for a minute. Now, though, something clicked into place, and a lock sprung open in my mind. I thought about Nick’s father, sitting drunk in the chair the day before, with his life burning down in front of him. The twenty dollars Nick said she’d given him. The ring in the cash box. It all made sense.

Except for one thing. “Why didn’t she take you with her?” I asked.

“She wanted to,” he said. “I said no.”

“No? How come?”

He shrugged, shook his head. He wasn’t crying anymore, and seemed to think seriously about the question.

“I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “I just couldn’t leave him behind.”

We were silent for a moment as I wrestled with this new information. We weren’t going to Sioux Falls. We weren’t leaving at all. In my chest I felt a clear and unmistakable relief.

“I’ll see you around,” Nick said. Then he turned and rode off down the street towards home, where his father would be waiting for him, alone.

As I found out later, my father had been right: they were ruined, bankrupt. They left town not long after; certainly they were gone by the end of the summer. I must have seen Nick again after that morning, but I don’t remember it. They might have joined his mother in Sioux Falls, but I don’t know for sure. The last clear memory I have of him is that morning, watching him ride off with the cash box under his arm, the only thing he could salvage.

When he was out of sight, I slung the duffel bag over my handlebars and rode towards home. The early light was warm and soft; it coated everything it touched. I went slowly through town, past the high school and the post office, the library and the One-Stop Market. I felt as though I’d spent a long time away from home and was coming back from a long trip. I noticed things I’d never seen before: how crisp and clean the flag outside the American Legion was, the way the rain-washed metal sign outside Max’s Hardware gleamed in the early light.

I was relieved, like I’d woken from a disturbing dream, but I felt vaguely hurt, as well, slighted that Nick had chosen to stay, chosen his father over me. I’m not sure that he ever really planned to leave at all. But I’d been ready. I would’ve followed Nick wherever he wanted to go, and as I rode through town, my hurt dissolved into shame. I’d been ready to leave it all behind. I would’ve left her behind. As I approached home, that shame hardened into resolve, into a promise I made to myself.

By the time I got home, my father had already left for work and the driveway was empty. In the kitchen, I took off my dirty shoes and dropped the bags on the floor. I went into the living room, where my mother was sleeping on the sofa. I stood there for a moment, just watching her sleep, the slow rise and fall of her breath. I felt the ache of love in my throat. She must have sensed me there, because her eyes fluttered and slowly opened.

“Jack?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good morning, baby.”

The room was dim and stuffy, as usual. In a quick burst of movement, I crossed to the windows and threw open the drapes. The morning light blazed into the room, burned through the shadows and the close, musty air.

“Good morning, Mom,” I said. “How are you feeling today?”

Fire Illness
by Scott Alumbaugh

Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Yong Soo saw fire everywhere. In the building that burned and collapsed onto her dead husband’s body. In nightmare visions of L.A.’s Koreatown in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts a year earlier. Inside herself. Fire was gutting her from the inside out and she couldn’t do anything about it. So one afternoon she lay in bed and swallowed sleeping pills one by one hoping they could put out the flames.

She didn’t know how many to take. Too many, she might just vomit them all out. If she took too few, she would end up in the hospital. Everyone would watch her more closely from then on. She would become even more of a burden than she was now.

She decided to take one for every person she inconvenienced, every life to which her continued life brought only worry, pity, charity. She would take each pill as an offering, hoping to atone for the trouble she brought to everyone who knew her. For the burden she had become. She decided that would be the right number of pills to quench the fire and to release her from everyone’s debt.

 

What put Yong Soo over the edge, what brought her to this afternoon, swallowing pills and hoping to die, was a meeting she had been to that morning. The meeting was at the Center for Asian American Rights, a legal services clinic. She met with lawyers who wanted to help her sue the insurance company that denied her claim for her business and building, both destroyed during the riots when a man named Dobson murdered her husband.

The Center was housed in donated offices above a Korean Methodist church in a ragged pocket of downtown. When Yong Soo arrived, she found a young Asian woman sitting behind a scratched desk, stuffing envelopes. The receptionist took Yong Soo’s name, directed her to a patch of remnant carpet with a cloth couch and mismatched love seat  next to a low, square table, and asked her to wait.

Yong Soo sank into the coarse fabric of the spongy sofa. All around the office, stacks of pamphlets covered every flat surface. Information on voting rights, child inoculations, women’s shelters, and a monthly schedule of workshops in Korean,  Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog, and English. Bookcases with sagging shelves under hardbound books lined the walls. An office door lay ajar, giving her a glimpse of a small room with a pebbled wire-glass window high up the wall that offered no view; only white, opaque light broken into sections by the dark shadows of the security bars outside.

The clinic’s modesty relieved Yong Soo. The thought of meeting a lawyer made her nervous, even though her friend Tanya would be in the room. She waited, her eyes resting on  her beige comfort shoes and sheer anklets poking out of her khakis, wishing she’d had time to change into nicer clothes.

~

The first pill she took was for her mother-in-law, who thirty years earlier, started the fire that was burning her alive. The old woman accused her of tricking her husband into marriage, told her she would never be the wife he deserved. After Yong Soo gave birth to a second daughter, her mother-in-law told her she should kill herself so her husband could marry a woman who would give him a son.

The only gift the old woman ever gave Yong Soo was this ember of hate, which she shoved down her throat and stoked with slights and venom for months and years. Even while they still lived in Korea, Yong Soo wanted to stop the burning, spit out the hate. But she was a good wife. She swallowed her humiliation to keep the family peace, held it down and showed only the placid face of passive obedience, filial respect, while shame and inexpressible anger smoldered inside.

She swallowed the pill for her mother-in-law as she had swallowed her anger toward the old woman, and silently cursed her in a manner she could never express aloud, bitter that maybe the old woman was right. That maybe if she had been a better wife her husband would still be alive.

 

The next pill she took was for Man Chul. She took it to apologize for not being a better wife, not doing more to save him. She took it hoping he would now be able to find peace.

He died nearly a year earlier, in April 1992, during Saigu, the April 29 Incident. What newspapers called the Rodney King riots. A week of looting and burning in Los Angeles that left more than fifty people dead. He died on the first full day of rioting, killed in their Koreatown shoe store.

Man Chul had been a professor of modern history in Korea. He moved Yong Soo and their daughters to Los Angeles in the mid-70s, worried that if he stayed his political views would land him in jail. He convinced Yong Soo America would give their children more opportunities than they could ever have in Korea. A better education, better career. They would be recognized for their achievements and hard work, not their regional background and personal connections. They wouldn’t be persecuted for their political views. Man Chul told her they would find freedom in Mi Gook, America, the Beautiful Country.

But just as Yong Soo wasn’t good enough for her mother-in-law, neither was she good enough for America. People couldn’t understand her English. They talked too fast, raised their voice to her as if she were a stubborn child, as if saying something louder would make its meaning penetrate her thick Asian skull. She had studied English at Ewha Womans University, but could never learn to speak it well enough to be understood.

She had planned to stay home and raise her young daughters as she had in Korea, but her husband couldn’t earn enough to support them. The closest he came to teaching at a university was getting hired as a janitor at Loyola Law School. Through a woman she met at church, Yong Soo found a job at a garment shop doing piecework. A couple of years later, she and her husband opened their own garment shop, starting with six workers and rented machines in a warehouse space downtown. Four years later they were still living in a two-room apartment in Koreatown, barely getting by.

This was not the Beautiful Country her husband had promised. But just as Yong Soo didn’t express her anger at her mother-in-law, she didn’t vent her frustration with America, wouldn’t do anything to disturb the family peace. She never complained to her husband or to her daughters about the anxiety she felt, the pains in her chest that   made it hard to breathe. This was their new life. She would make it work.

After all, her husband never complained. Man Chul was as worn out and frustrated as she was trying to build a life in America, but he didn’t blame her for his troubles. He didn’t hit her, like she heard other men did. He didn’t drink or escape to a second wife. He was a gentle man. Maybe too gentle. Man Chul believed too much in the dream of the Beautiful Country. In the end, his belief got him killed.

 

~

 

“Mrs. Bak?”

Yong Soo looked up to see a Korean woman in her late twenties wearing costume pearls over a sleeveless blue dress. The woman held out her hand. Yong Soo stood.

“I’m Elaine Park, the coordinating pro bono attorney here at CAAR.”

Yong Soo bowed and said, “Insa haseyo.”

“I don’t really speak Korean,” Elaine said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m very happy to meet you. Is Tanya here?”

“Yes,” Elaine said, “and so is John.” She led Yong Soo down a short corridor, then paused at a closed door with her hand on the knob. Yong Soo smelled burnt coffee and kimchi from behind the door, and thought Elaine had led her to the wrong room.

“I apologize for the accommodations,” Elaine said. “We have to meet in the break area because our executive director is using the conference room.”

Yong Soo heard Tanya’s voice from inside, saying, “You need to go easy,” then a man’s impatient voice saying, “I understand.” She didn’t want to walk in on a fight, but before she could say anything, Elaine pushed into the room. Yong Soo stood behind her, holding her breath. But then she saw Tanya, who stood and smiled and said, “Anyoung haseyo.” Yong Soo felt so relieved she rushed in to give her a hug.

This is the attorney I told you about,” Tanya said in Korean. “He works for a large private firm, but he’s going to help you for free.”

She turned to the American lawyer who rose, banging into the low table and spilling tea.

“John,” Tanya said, “this is my friend, Yong Soo.”

“Good afternoon,” he said.

He reminded her of her son-in-law. Tall, with sandy hair and dark blue eyes. Yong Soo felt it was disrespectful for Elaine to make him hold the meeting in such a tiny room. She bowed and said, “Aigo, kamsa hamnida. Jal bootak deurimnida.”

He paused, as if unsure how to respond.

“Thank you for helping me, Mr. . . .” Yong Soo looked to Tanya to help with his name.

“Laughlin,” Tanya said.

“Please call me ‘John,'” the lawyer said.

Yong Soo glanced at Tanya, who gave a slight nod back. “Yes. Thank you, John.”

May I offer you some tea?” Tanya asked.

Water, please.

Tanya indicated a chair, but Yong Soo hesitated before sitting. Everyone was so well dressed: John, in his business suit, Elaine in her elegant dress, Tanya in a dark brown suit, her hair tied in a chignon held in place by a chopstick.

They made Yong Soo feel shabby: worn beyond her years, wrinkled from work and worry, too thin for her age. She became aware of the greying curls of her permed hair, the bags under her eyes from poor sleep. She wore no jewelry or makeup, nothing to hide behind, just an old white sweater buttoned over her pale-green blouse. Now she knew why they were meeting in the kitchen: they were embarrassed to be seen with her. She pulled her sweater closer around her with one hand as she sat.

 

~

 

Yong Soo swallowed a pill for Tanya. She didn’t know how she could have managed this past year without her help. And Tanya did so much to help her cope with her loss so she could move on with her life.

She was twenty-seven, the same age as Yong Soo’s eldest daughter, and shared the same immigrant upbringing: a latch-key childhood, teen years spent as unpaid labor at the family business-Yong Soo’s daughters at their shoe store, Tanya at her father’s convenience store nearby. And like Yong Soo’s daughters, Tanya had lost a parent to violence. Her mother was killed during a store robbery ten years earlier. Yong Soo was certain that’s why Tanya had spent hours and days helping her since Saigu, taking time away from work to drive and translate for her in all of the meetings with the police and the government relief agencies.

One of the meetings Tanya arranged for her was with a Korean psychiatrist who offered free help to victims of Saigu. It was just a month after her husband’s death and she was reluctant, hardened and resolute from years of keeping her suffering inside. But facing an empty house every night wore on her. There was no longer any peace to keep, no one to protect. No reason to keep her feelings locked down.

The doctor told Yong Soo what she already knew: she suffered from hwa byung, Fire Illness. A condition unique to Koreans, related to han, a sadness all Koreans bear. Her illness didn’t come on suddenly. It had been building for decades, caused by years of suppressing anger, which upset the balance of the five elements in her body, allowing the fire element to rage out of control, causing her to feel the burning sensation, the ball of blocked anger that made it hard for her to breathe, difficult to sleep.

The doctor saw her every week. He encouraged her to release her anger, prescribing pills along with traditional herbs, and urging her to focus on the good she gave others by suffering. His help worked for a time. But as the months wore on, the steady burning would not go away. Yong Soo could not overcome the loss caused by her husband’s death. They were so close to making a good life in America. With both daughters grown, they were able to start to save more money, to see a time in the future when they could afford to sell the store. All of that went up in flames in a single afternoon.

Before, she always knew who was attacking her: her mother-in-law, an angry customer. But this time her attacker had no face. Who could she hold accountable? The man who shot her husband? The police who abandoned Koreatown? The looters who roamed the streets?

With no one to blame, she turned the blame back on herself. As she became more dependent on the charity of others, her ability to smother the Fire Illness under a blanket of pills and herbs and positive thoughts weakened until it disappeared. Until it became easier to sacrifice her life to satisfy the voracious appetite of the fire.

She took another pill, this one for the psychiatrist, the kind man who donated so much of his time trying to help her. She apologized for failing him, and hoped he would use the time her death freed up to help someone who could be cured.

 

~

 

“Ms. Bak,” John said, “thank you for coming downtown to talk to us today. I’ll try not to take up too much of your time. First, let’s make sure I have everything.” He shuffled through sheets of paper as he spoke. “I have a copy of your most recent premium payment to your insurer; the letters Ms. Cho—-” he nodded to his left—-“Tanya, drafted for you seeking payment; the insurer’s rejection letter . . .”

Yong Soo sat with her hands in her lap, eyes fixed on the table in front of her, nodding as Tanya translated. She glanced at John when he spoke, but when his eyes met hers, she dropped them back to the table.

“Do you have any other documents relating to insurance?”

Tanya translated. Yong Soo shook her head. They spoke back and forth in Korean.

That’s all I have. The insurance burned up with all the business papers. We kept everything in a safe in the back of the store.

He’s just double checking,” Tanya said.

I gave you everything.”

Tanya looked at John. “Everything’s in the file I gave you.”

“And you’re sure there’s nothing else at your house?” John asked Yong Soo.

She shook her head. How could there be anything at the house when there was no longer any house? The bank took it away months ago. Tanya knew. Didn’t she tell John? She saw he was waiting for her to answer. “No,” she said in English. “Nothing.”

Her voice shook. She felt ashamed; a smarter person would have everything a lawyer asked for. She glanced at the door, wanting to leave.

Tanya glared at John. “Go easy.”

 

~

 

Yong Soo picked two more pills, one each for Mr. and Mrs. Chung, who owned the basement apartment where she lay. She had lost her home soon after she lost her husband, unable to afford the mortgage. If it weren’t for the Chungs, she might not have any place at all.

She and her husband had borrowed heavily to purchase a suburban house so their daughters could go to good schools. Soon after, they sold their garment business and bought the shoe store in Koreatown from Mr. Chung who’d immigrated five years before them. They couldn’t afford any more debt, but it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. Mr. Chung introduced Yong Soo’s husband to an insurance agent who sold them business insurance at a discount. The savings made it possible to afford the store.

After the shoe store burned down, Tanya helped Yong Soo file a claim, but the insurance money never arrived. Without any income, she could only afford payments on the house for three months.

When the bank foreclosed, Mr. Chung insisted on housing her. He offered her the basement apartment he set up for newly arrived immigrants to use until they found a place to live. Yong Soo refused, not wanting to accept his charity. He didn’t ask again. He hired a moving company to bring her things to his house, then brought in an estate broker to sell off what she no longer wanted. She knew he wasn’t offering her charity: he was begging her to help him relieve his shame, to overcome his guilt for misleading his friend.

Yong Soo glanced around. She was glad she’d ended up there. The apartment was small and clean, with a south-facing window high on the wall by the front door through which she could see the steel-blue sky from where she lay on her bed.

She swallowed a pill for Mr. Chung. Then she swallowed another for his wife, nosy Mrs. Chung, who would probably find her body. She felt bad for the shock she would cause her. But there would be no mess, no blood, no twisted corpse to take down from the ceiling. Just a body at rest on top of the bed. She took solace knowing she wouldn’t cause Mrs. Chung any undue work.

 

She took pills for Kyong Sook and Hyun Yee, thinking to herself how lucky she was to have such loving daughters. Thinking how much better their lives would be without having to worry about their needy mother.

Her older daughter called every week and begged her to move in with her family. But she lived in Ojai, a resort town in the mountains. What would Yong Soo do in such a remote place, so far from her Korean friends, her Korean markets, surrounded by people who would have a hard time understanding her poor English, who only knew her daughter as Katie instead of Kyong Sook? It would be like emigrating again, only to a place even more foreign than L.A. She didn’t have the strength to exile herself from the Korean community, to start all over in yet another foreign land.

Besides, Kyong Sook’s husband was white. He had no sense of family beyond his wife and son. He called Yong Soo “ŏmma,” mother, but he would grow tired of her. She would embarrass him in the eyes of his country club friends, be the unwanted mother-in-law, the price he had to pay for marrying an il-chŏm-o-se, a 1.5 generation Korean wife, a burden to his friends, who married American women and sent their parents to retirement homes, didn’t have to bear.

Her younger daughter, Hyun Yee, was still single, living in San Francisco. She offered to move back to L.A., to live with Yong Soo, help her get back on her feet. But how could Yong Soo do that to her? Ask her to leave the life she was building for herself? Isn’t that why her husband uprooted the family and brought them to America in the first place? What sense would all the deprivation they had suffered, the long hours of work, the hardships . . . what sense would any of it make if she took that opportunity away?

 

~

 

John took a sip of tea and nodded, then cleared his throat and continued.

“Ms. Bak, your case seems straightforward to me. You and your husband owned a retail business and the building that housed it. Both were covered by insurance. During the riots last year, your merchandise was stolen and your building was destroyed.”

Not stolen,” Yong Soo said to Tanya.

Excuse me?” Tanya said.

The shoes weren’t stolen. We gave most of them away. The rest burned in the fire.”

Tanya wrinkled her brow. John glanced back and forth between them.

“Tanya,” Elaine said, “could you please translate for John and me?”

Tanya held her hand up as to fend off Elaine’s interruption. “Just a second.”

Elaine bristled, stiffening in her chair and staring at Tanya. But she held still.

You gave them away?” Tanya said in Korean.

Yong Soo nodded. “My husband stood out front and invited people in. He told them to take what they wanted, but to leave some for the others.”

Why?” Tanya asked.

When we got to the store that morning,” Yong Soo said, “a lot of buildings were already on fire. If our store burned down, it would take months to get it rebuilt. We couldn’t afford to be out of work that long. My husband was certain that if we gave everything away and kept the looters happy, they would leave the building alone. After Saigu, the insurance would pay for the shoes and we’d still be able to work. Looters were everywhere in Koreatown, but they weren’t angry. Most were poor Mexicans who lived nearby. They saw people on TV stealing things while the police just watched. They didn’t want to make trouble; only get what they could for free.

 

The day before Yong Soo’s husband was killed, a jury had acquitted four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. By nightfall, crowds were rioting in South Central L.A., just a couple of miles from the Baks’ store. Yong Soo and her husband listened to news reports of police retreating from hostile crowds, fire crews leaving buildings to burn because rioters were shooting at them. Like many other merchants in Koreatown, they closed the store early and planned not to open at all the next day.

But in the morning, Radio Korea reported that rioters were working their way north into Koreatown, looting and burning as they went. The announcers alerted shop owners that the police had abandoned the area, told them they had the right to defend their stores under the Second Amendment, encouraged them to arm themselves and defend their stores or risk losing everything.

A little after ten, Man Chul went to the kitchen and started packing lunches like he did every day before they went to work. Yong Soo fought the urge to stand and help him, staying in her chair and twisting around instead to study his face and his reactions to each news update. He moved without looking up, preparing packages of food with practiced efficiency.  

Yeobo,” she said at last. “Where are you going?”

He didn’t reply.

“It’s not safe,” she said. “We don’t even own a gun.”

“We don’t need one,” he said. “We’ll open the store and give everything away.”

“Why?”

“If we aren’t there, they’ll destroy the building.”

“Our lives are more important.”

“No one wants to hurt us. They just want to get what they can for free.”

“But still . . .”

He turned to face her.

“If we give away the shoes, insurance will cover the cost and we’ll be back in business in weeks. But all of our money is tied up in the building. If it’s destroyed, we’ll be out of work for months until insurance pays to get it rebuilt. We can’t afford to have the business closed that long.”

Yong Soo wanted to argue, but her husband was right. For all their years of hard work, they carried so much debt they were never more than a step ahead of losing everything.

“Do you really think we’ll be safe?” she asked.

“Why would anyone hurt us if we give them everything they want?”

She wanted to trust her husband’s judgment, but should she? Despite her fear, she couldn’t let him face the looters alone. She went to the kitchen to help him pack.

By early afternoon, when rioting crowds had worked their way up to the Bak’s store, they were ready. Man Chul stood in the doorway, welcoming looters inside. He smiled and bowed and told people to take what they wanted, asked them to please take only what they could use, to leave some for the others.

His plan seemed to work. Looters ravaged the store: shoes and boxes and packaging covered the floor; displays lay stripped and broken; torn sports posters dangled from the walls. Even after looters had taken most of the merchandise, people still ran in from the street, jostling the crowd inside. They rifled through boxes, rummaged through discarded piles, all the time shouting, their excited voices drowning out the sirens and helicopters outside. But Man Chul’s plan seemed to work. The people were happy. He and Yong Soo and their building were safe — until three gunmen chased everyone out.

 

“Tanya,” Elaine said, tapping a pen on the table, “please tell us what Mrs. Bak is saying.”

“She’s explaining how most of the shoes weren’t stolen.”

“Okay,” Elaine said. “So we’ve established that the merchandise was destroyed. Can we move on?”

Tanya said to Yong Soo, “We’ll have to talk about what happened to the shoes later.” She turned to John. “You can continue.”

He picked up the insurance rejection letter and frowned.

“The biggest hurdle to collecting on your claim is going to be this ‘Riot Exclusion’ the insurer cites in its rejection letter. The business was burned in a riot. We’ll have to get around this exclusion somehow.”

“It wasn’t a riot,” Elaine said. “It was an uprising.”

John looked at her with a blank expression.

“A riot is spontaneous,” Elaine said. “An uprising is a political expression. African-Americans targeted Korean-owned businesses. It was a coordinated response.”

“It was civil unrest,” Tanya said. “African-Americans weren’t the only people who rose up, and Korean businesses weren’t the only ones attacked. Antagonism between Koreans and Blacks was just the story the media spun. There were looters of all races in Koreatown, and African-Americans lost businesses too.”

“Riot, uprising, civil unrest,” John said. “The point is moot. It doesn’t matter what you call it. The insurer will argue those are distinctions without a difference.”

“It was arson,” Tanya said to John. She pointed at the papers in front of him. “Arson isn’t excluded under the policy.”

“Again,” John said, raising his voice, “arson committed in furtherance of a riot or,” he motioned toward Elaine, “an uprising. Either way they’ve got an exclusion.”

“No,” Tanya said, “you don’t understand.” She stared at John, her eyes burning with rage. “The fire had nothing to do with the civil unrest. A gangbanger named Dobson came into the store with a couple of bodyguards and chased the looters out, then demanded protection money. Yong Soo’s husband didn’t understand. He offered them free shoes. They got angry and shot him, then burned the store down to cover up their crime.”

Yong Soo blinked back tears. John looked back and forth between her and Tanya.

“How do you know?” he asked.

Tanya reached into Yong Soo’s lap and took her hand.

“Yong Soo was hiding in back,” Tanya said. “She saw everything.”

 

~

 

The first gunshot sounded like a bomb exploding inside the store. Looters screamed and fell to the floor. Yong Soo ducked into the storeroom and cowered under the counter until the panic died down to murmurs and sobs. She crawled out to peer around the doorway as her husband rushed in from the sidewalk waving his hands over his head.

“No trouble!” he shouted. “Take what you want. Everything is free today.”

Boom! Another shot went off, this time near the cash register. More cries rang out. A black man brandishing a chrome-barreled pistol stepped from the crowd and jumped up on the counter. He wore a ribbed tank top, chains, sagging jeans with a blue bandana hanging from the back pocket. Yong Soo knew what that meant. Gang colors. Crips.

The gangbanger swept his gun over the crowd. “Store’s closed,” he said in a low voice. “Everybody out.”

A few people near the entrance rose to a crouch, keeping their eyes on the gunman as they sidled toward the door, moving faster as they scrambled outside. After the first few left unharmed, the rest rushed out, clutching and dropping shoe boxes, bags of socks, t-shirts, grabbing for anything they could hold as they went. Yong Soo’s mouth dropped open. How could they be so worried about free shoes when their lives were at stake?

Two other Crips stood guard over the entrance, weapons drawn. The gangster waving the gun stepped off the counter and looked her husband up and down.

“Man Chul Bak,” he said. He spoke slowly, as if testing the foreign words. “Mind if I call you Manny?”

“Daniel,” Man Chul said. “Please, call me ‘Dan’.” He smiled and held out his hand. “May I ask your name?”

“You can call me Mr. Dobson,” the gunman said. He ignored Man Chul’s outstretched hand and glanced around the store instead. “Nice place you got here, Manny. Could use a little cleaning up.”

Dobson’s eyes settled on Man Chul and scanned him from head to toe. He let out a short laugh.

“How a dumb motherfucker like you get to own your own place?” he said.

“Not dumb,” Man Chul said. “I was a professor in Korea. Top university.”

“Yeah? You so smart, why you running this little shitbox shoe store?”

“I don’t speak English well. It’s very hard to get work.”

“So you left Korea to sell shoes?”

“To get away from the government. Very repressive. People are treated bad there. Like you here in America.”

Dobson pointed the gun back and forth between them. “So you and me, we the same, huh? Oppressed brothers?”

“Yes, you and me.”

“Let me tell you something, you dumb motherfucker. We ain’t nothin’ the same.”

“Not dumb,” Man Chul said, “I told you. If we are in Korea, maybe you would be my student. Maybe assistant.”

“What, do your laundry?” Dobson asked.

“No,” Man Chul said. “Research assistant.”

Dobson smiled and waved away the thought with his gun. “Nevermind, it was a joke. I do your laundry in Korea, instead of you doing mine here.”

Man Chul nodded and smiled back. “No. That’s Chinese. Chinese laundry, like in the old Westerns. John Wayne.”

Dobson pressed the gun against Man Chul’s temple. “You callin’ me stupid?”

Man Chul held his arms up and shook his head. “No. I don’t want trouble. You want money? Rob me? I don’t have money today. Take some shoes. Everything is free.”

“I don’t need new shoes.”

“Wait. I’ll get you some nice ones. What size? Ten?”

Dobson hesitated, then glanced at his feet. “Ten and a half,” he said. “D.”

“D,” Man Chul repeated. “Wait here. Let me pick out some shoes for you.” He hurried toward the storeroom in back.

“You’d better not be packing a gun in them shoe boxes,” Dobson yelled after him.

Man Chul turned and held up his hands. “No gun!” he said. “No trouble! Just wait one minute.”

Dobson clicked his tongue as Man Chul hurried away. “Yo, Dirt!” he called out, “go watch that motherfucker.”

 

Man Chul shooed Yong Soo into the bathroom and told her to lock the door. She sat in the dark and pounded her thighs, angry with herself for letting him talk her into opening that morning. Once the the storeroom went quiet, she snuck back to the doorway to keep an eye on her husband.

He motioned to Dobson to sit down.

“What am I going to do with those little boy shoes?” Dobson said.

“Air Jordan,” Man Chul said. “My most popular brand with blacks.” He pointed at Dobson’s shoes. “British Knights. Pretty good shoe.”

“Yeah, they BKs,” Dobson said. “Blood killers, like me.”

“I think you’ll like these better,” Man Chul said.

Dobson grinned. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” He clicked his tongue. “Man, you Koreans are something else. Put a gun to your head and you still trying to hawk a pair of shoes.”

Man Chul motioned again. “Sit down. Relax.” He opened the box and started lacing.

Dobson sat, still holding the gun. When he looked up, both his guards were staring at him.

“What the fuck you looking at?” he yelled. “Mind the door.”

Man Chul knelt before Dobson, cradling the heel of his foot to unlace his shoe. Yong Soo watched Dobson looking down on her husband’s balding head, and felt for a moment as if she were in his place, close enough to smell her husband’s hair, to see the grey-black strands whorling away from the circle of bare skin, the sprinkles of dandruff. Dobson shifted. She saw his expression change from laughing at her husband to something blank, and then something cold. He sniffed, then grimaced, and in one swift motion brought the handgun back and swiped the heavy metal barrel hard across Man Chul’s face.

She jumped and let a squeak escape before clapping her hand over her mouth.

“Get the fuck off me!” Dobson yelled. He relaced his shoe and stood, brushing his hands down his front as if soiled. He pressed the gun against Man Chul’s chest. “You need to pay me now, or something bad’s gonna happen.”

Man Chul rocked on his knees, holding his bloody cheek. “No money,” he said. “No trouble. Take the shoes.”

“Motherfucker!” Dobson said, and raised the gun to cock him again.

Yong Soo took a step forward to help her husband, then hesitated. What could she do against three armed men? She winced, anticipating the blow.

Man Chul reached into his back pocket. “Here’s my wallet. Take it.” He pointed to the counter. “There’s the cash register. Open. No money. Go in back, look at my safe. All open. No money! If you don’t want shoes, give them to your friends.”

“They ain’t my friends,” Dobson said. “Yo, Dirt!” he called out without taking his eyes off Man Chul. “You see a safe when you went back of the store?”

“Yeah.”

“Motherfucker, was there anything in it?”

“Nothin’,” Dirt said. “Papers. No money, if that’s what you mean.”

Dobson closed his eyes and took a breath. He took another, then opened his eyes and smiled.

“All right,” he said in a soothing voice. He grabbed Man Chul’s elbow and helped him up. “Alright, Manny. Listen up. I’ll be back when this shit is over, and you owe me for protecting your store.”

“No money,” Man Chul said.

“I know,” Dobson said. “After. When you charging people for shoes again. I’ll come back. You pay me then for keeping your store safe, or you die. Ain’t no third way. Got it?”

“Come back later. Yes. I understand.” Man Chul bowed. “Thank you.”

Dobson tucked his gun into the back of his pants, shook his head, and eased toward the front of the store. Yong Soo followed him with her eyes as he spoke to Dirt, then stood in the doorway, facing the smoky, trash-strewn street.

The danger was over. They would leave now. She turned away from the storeroom door.

BAM! A gunshot went off. She jumped, then bit her fist to stifle a cry. Man Chul lay sprawled on a pile of boxes, blood oozing from the back of his head. Dirt was strutting toward the front of the store with a shoebox under his arm.

“What the fuck?” Dobson said.

“He got the point now,” Dirt said.

“How’m I supposed to shake down a dead Korean?”

“But you said . . .”

“Hit the motherfucker,” Dobson said. “Scare him. Not kill him.” He grabbed the shoebox and threw it back into the store.

“Hey!” Dirt said.

Dobson pointed at Man Chul’s body. “One more slip, you end up just like him.”  He clicked his tongue and glanced around the store with a look of regret. “If I can’t have this bitch, nobody can. Torch the motherfucker. Stay here and shoot anybody tries to put out the fire.

 

Yong Soo scurried back to the bathroom and crouched on the toilet, cradling her shaky knees with trembling arms and holding one hand over her mouth to quiet the squeaks and cries she couldn’t suppress.

She stayed hidden until smoke came in under the door. She tried to search through the smoke for Man Chul’s body, but the fire was too hot. She escaped through the rear entrance to the back alley, wandering through crowds of roaming looters until she found refuge at a Korean market protected by armed men posted on the roof. The owner had one of the guards drive her to a hospital in Pasadena, away from the riots, where she was treated for smoke inhalation and first-degree burns.

She wasn’t able to get back to Koreatown for two days. By then, nothing was left of their building but charred concrete walls, piles of twisted metal and smoky gray ash. She clawed through the debris looking for some sign of her husband. All she came away with were scraped knees and soot-covered hands.

The police never found Man Chul’s body. Yong Soo told them he had been shot before the building burned down. But there was no weapon. No remains. In the absence of any proof, LAPD listed Man Chul Bak as a missing person, just one of more than a hundred reported during the riots. The police even suggested her husband might have started the fire himself, used the cover of the riots to start a new life, maybe even return to Korea. They asked Yong Soo if she was fabricating his death to collect on his life insurance. Asked her if she knew she could go to jail for insurance fraud.

Weeks later, she went back to watch a city crew clear the lot. When the bulldozer bumped against the charred wall of the store to knock it down, she felt a heavy thump inside, as if the machine were tearing down something inside her.

Yong Soo’s life was like their store: gutted by fire, empty behind the facade. But the fire that consumed her husband’s body died when it ran out of fuel. So long as Yong Soo was alive, the fire inside her had an inexhaustible supply of sadness and shame. It would never die so long as she lived. As she watched the walls of the store come down, she wondered how long that might be.

 

~

 

Yong Soo picked up her napkin and wiped her eyes. Tanya’s lower lip quivered. Elaine was dead silent. John leaned his elbow on the table and stroked his chin while he stared at Tanya.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Bak. I didn’t know.”

Yong Soo nodded.

John straightened the papers in front of him. “I think we could all use a breather. Why don’t we take a short break.”

“Fine with me,” Elaine said. “I need to check in with our E.D.”

“Great,” he said. “Ten minutes?”

Yong Soo followed Elaine out and asked where she could find a bathroom. When she returned, she heard John and Tanya arguing behind the door. She walked in without knocking. Tanya turned to face her. John was leaning forward with his fists planted on the table. His face was red, and veins stood out on his forehead. He straightened and cleared his throat.

“I’m very sorry to cause you so much trouble,” Yong Soo said to him.

He smiled at her. “You’re not. It’s okay. This is what I do.” He looked at Tanya. “See if you can get Elaine back in here, will you?”

~

The rest of the meeting was even more painful for Yong Soo. John asked questions, but she didn’t know anything; her husband had taken care of it all. She couldn’t tell him how much they paid for their business, what loans were outstanding, anything about their insurance agent beyond the information on the premium form.

With each answer she was unable to give, John’s expression grew more troubled. He tapped his foot more often, shuffled papers while he rubbed his chin and flexed his jaw. She could see in his eyes how every unanswered question made his work harder. Work Tanya had told him he would do for free.

As her embarrassment grew, she became listless, barely able to respond. She hoped he didn’t think she was ungrateful.

She wanted to explain herself to him, but didn’t know how. He wouldn’t understand. She was sure he’d never heard of Han, that he couldn’t know anything about Hwa Byung. To him, her behavior probably just seemed like depression caused by the loss of her husband.

But it was so much more than that.

She wanted to explain how the unresolvable sadness of Han smolders deep inside Koreans, how it comes from being raised in a repressive society, from missing relatives who live north of a military line dividing their country, from decades of Japanese occupation, how Han goes back to the invasions of the Mongols, the Manchus, a thousand years of death and destruction caused by each wave of marauding armies that have ravaged their land.  

She wanted to explain how sometimes the burning ember of Han flares into Hwa Byung, Fire Illness, and how the fire grows, consuming everything, until there is nothing left but the hollow shell of the person who no longer has a reason to live. It can start with something small-like being told by your mother-in-law you’re not fit to marry her son-and that small thing grows through a lifetime of trying to prove your worth without showing your anger, through years of hard work and long hours away from your growing children, the hostility of customers, humiliations from people who don’t understand you, who yell at you to learn the language even though you work too hard and too many hours to have time, from being told you should go home when you’ve immigrated, and this place, this America, is your only home. From losing your life and your future in one afternoon.

Yong Soo knew John wanted to help her get the money she was owed, help her regain some dignity, show she and her husband weren’t just ignorant foreigners who could be cheated at will.

But to what purpose?

So she could build a new store? Face the same long hours alone? The humiliations, the robberies, the anxiety of knowing she could be murdered any day like so many other Korean-Americans who go through life armed and fearful behind the counters of their stores? John was offering her as much of her old life as she could purchase with the insurance money, and as she saw that promise being held out to her, all she could think of was how little she wanted any part of it.

Her purpose in this life was done. She’d worked side-by-side with her husband, kept peace with her in-laws, raised two dutiful daughters, gave them the promise of America far beyond anything she would ever enjoy. This was the time of the new Koreans, the ones who thought more like Tanya and Elaine, like her daughters. Those who had more of the American future ahead of them than the Korean past.

John can’t understand any of this. Yong Soo can’t begin to explain it to him. He is the fair-haired picture of what Koreans are taught all Americans look like, born of a nation of conquerors, a people who kill anyone and push aside anything that stands in their way. To an American like him, Koreans are melodramatic. Han is absurd.

So instead of trying to explain, Yong Soo grew sullen, gazing downward to avoid meeting John’s eyes, sipping water and concentrating instead on calming the fire in her chest.

 

When the meeting was finally over, John stood and bowed to Yong Soo. This stranger who had offered to help her for free. That was what pushed her over the edge: knowing she was so destitute she had to rely on the generosity of a complete stranger; that she was so empty there was nothing left of her to help.

~

She reached for the nightstand to get a sleeping pill to take for John. The sky through the window had turned orange-red. Something about that bothered her, but what? Was it so late already? As she groped for the bottle, her ears filled with a sound like spilling rice. She glanced over and saw pills scattered on the nightstand, bouncing off the wooden floor. She took a second to focus, then used all her concentration to pick a pill off the stand and bring it to her mouth. She swallowed it with the last sip of water in the glass and lay back, wondering whether she should take any more. She would need to refill her glass, and the sink was so far away. She worried about crushing the pills on the floor and making more of a mess for Mrs. Chung to clean up.

Her head pounded. She cradled it in her hands and closed her eyes, but the pounding continued. She felt her body lifting off the bed, floating around the room, searching for the source of the noise as if she were playing hide and seek with her baby daughters. The room went quiet. She hovered silently, waiting . . . She heard pounding again and opened her eyes. The sound wasn’t in her head. It was coming from the door.

She heard a small voice, and her heart started pounding in her chest. It was Mrs. Chung, inviting her upstairs to dinner. Yong Soo saw the deepening red sky through the window, and only then realized she had forgotten to close the curtain. Mrs. Chung would get curious when there was no answer. She would peek in and see her on the bed, see the pills spilled all over. She’d panic and call an ambulance.

Yong Soo swung her feet to the floor. She needed to close the curtain before Mrs. Chung interfered. She waited until the room settled down, then when the dizziness passed, slid into her slippers and pushed herself up. She paused with a hand on the bed to steady herself, then took one step toward the window before losing all strength in her legs and collapsing into a pile on the floor.

As she lay among the pills, she glanced sideways and saw the window darkened by a shadow. She heard fingernails clicking on the glass, the high-pitched squeal of Mrs. Chung’s panicked screams. She wished Mrs. Chung weren’t so nosy. She prayed to be left alone to die. To be released from this life. To be allowed, at last, to put the fire out.

The Magic Telescope
by Eileen O’Connor

Honorable Mention, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

All mothers watch their children through magic telescopes. That’s what Mom said, and I believed her. How else would she know when I didn’t want to match socks, or rub her feet, or sort the bills on the dining room table and stack them in neat piles according to date?

Mom had good days and bad days. On her good days, Dad took care of me and baby Lucy while Mom shut herself in the bedroom with a beer and a paperback mystery. She used the magic telescope to keep an eye on us.

“Your father can’t be trusted to know what’s good for six-year-old girls,” she reminded me.

I knew the rules. Although there would always be new ones and some old ones could change, the most important rules were in place. There was what I should do: rub Mom’s feet, polish the living room furniture without being asked, tell Mom if Dad lets me watch television shows on another channel besides PBS, thank her for being my mother. What I shouldn’t do: make noise, make faces, talk unless asked to, watch television shows on any other channel besides PBS even if Dad says it’s okay. What I should think about: something nice to do for Mom, how to make dying for my sins worth Jesus’ while. What I should not think about: eating a piece of Mom’s special chocolate, what’s inside my vagina.

On Mom’s bad days, she couldn’t leave me and Dad alone. She stormed out of the bedroom and told me to stop bothering my father. “Can’t you see he’s trying to take care of the baby? Why are you hanging all over him, a big girl like you?”

“Why don’t you run across the street and say hello to Jennifer?” Dad would tell me while keeping his eyes on baby Lucy’s pink-cheeked face. Jennifer was a tall blond nurse who wore a pink uniform with white Reebok sneakers. I thought she was as pretty as a Barbie doll, and twice as nice. She let me try on her lip-gloss, the exact same shade of pink as her uniform. She did my hair in French braids. She took me to Friendly’s for ice cream.

Every time I went to Jennifer’s, I left a trail of shouts behind me. “Don’t make me look bad,” Mom screamed at Dad. “It’s obvious Bridget prefers you to me.”

“Who in the hell but the baby is here to see?”

From the front steps I would hear Mom slam the bedroom door, then Dad’s voice prodding me down the driveway. “Go ahead now, there’s a good girl.” I would look back to see him at the door, bouncing Lucy in his arms. “I’ll come get you in a while.”

When Dad arrived later with Lucy in the stroller, he never seemed to be in a rush to get home. Jennifer would make Dad a cup of tea and open a box of Fig Newtons, then lead us into the big white living room with a plant in each window. We would stay an hour or two longer, Dad and Jennifer sitting on the big blue couch with its many colored cushions, talking about the new babies Jennifer cared for at the hospital, while I held Lucy in my lap in front of the television and watched whatever channel I wanted.

But one Thursday evening in second grade, I came home early from Jennifer’s. Mom sat at the kitchen table smoking. Donahue, her favorite show, was on the small television on the counter. A cube steak thawed beside it.

“How come you’re home before your father went to fetch you?”

“Jennifer had to go to work.”

“She must have been fixing herself up by the time you got there.”

“Yes.” I kept my eyes on the checkerboard linoleum, started counting the stray Cheerios beneath the table, and held my breath for Mom’s next question. The chocolate pudding cup I had eaten at Jennifer’s slithered in my belly. I prayed Mom wouldn’t ask what stage of getting ready Jennifer had been in. Mom hated the nakedness that came with showering and dressing. She had made me wash myself since I was four years old.

“So what did you do?” The snake in my stomach tensed, tightened and coiled.

Mom could see everything through her magic telescope. There was no use lying to her. I could, however, choose my words carefully, maybe change how Mom felt about what she had seen. “I sang her ‘Love Me Do,’ like I do for Dad, outside the bathroom door.”

Dad was a bartender in one of Boston’s five-star hotels, and I liked nothing more than to accompany him in the ritual of donning his tuxedo on Friday and Saturday evenings. I especially loved to help him fix the bowtie on his penguin suit. Mom made sure the bathroom door was firmly closed between me and Dad when I sang to him as he showered. It was only after he had his pants and undershirt on that I was allowed to watch him shave, comb gel through the tangled brown curls that were just the same as mine, brush his teeth, button his shirt and polish his shiny black shoes.

Mom blew smoke toward the yellow light suspended from the ceiling. “Run along, then.”

~

Three years later, after Dad had left for his Saturday evening shift, Mom told me and Lucy that we wouldn’t wake on Sunday morning to find him, as we usually did, sleeping on the couch in the den downstairs. He had left us to be with Jennifer. He would not be coming home. And he couldn’t see me and Lucy, because Mom had taken Dad to court and come back with something called a restraining order.

“Your Dad is abusive. He exposed you to bad things. The judge made this no-visitation rule to protect you.”

Lucy wrapped her arms around my waist, buried her face in my stomach, and began to sob noiselessly.

“But, Dad isn’t bad,” I said. “What did he do?”

“Someday you’ll understand, Bridget, and you’ll thank me. You both will.”

Every night that week, I looked out my bedroom window at Dad’s blue station wagon parked in Jennifer’s driveway across the street, waiting to catch a glimpse of him. On one such night, Mom came and sat on my bed.

“Remember how you sang the Beatles for Jennifer when she got ready for work?”

It took a moment to understand. “You mean when I was seven?”

“You saw her in a bath towel, right?”

“I think so. Or maybe it was her bathrobe.”

“I didn’t tell you then, because you were too young. That’s called sexual abuse.”

I knew what sex was. I was ten years old and read everything I could get my hands on. Sex was the mysterious thrill I had gawked at in movies like Dirty Dancing at a friend’s sleepover party. Sex was the sin I wasn’t supposed to commit until I was married.

I shook my head. “I don’t think…”

“Now is the time to cry it out, Bridget,” Mom cut me off. “Don’t keep it inside.” Don’t. The weight of Mom’s warning pressed heavy on my chest.

Every night after that, Mom came into my bedroom to tell me what had happened, because she said I was too traumatized to remember. But I remembered, because I hung on to every memory of Dad. Still, Mom’s words burrowed into me and blossomed. Soon, I was crying every night as if on cue.

Mom said I needed therapy. That meant visiting Pam, our retired neighbor who had been an addiction counselor at Boston City Hospital. On Saturday mornings, I sat with Pam and Mom at the kitchen table as they drank coffee and talked about Dad, “The alcoholic womanizer who got off on Bridget being abused.” I watched Lucy play Connect Four by herself on the floor and ate stacks of butter cookies from a tin. Before we left, Pam always asked me how I felt about my father.“Bad?” I would glance at Mom. “Sad, mad.” Mom and Pam never seemed to think it was strange that my list of feelings rhymed. My cheeks would tingle as I watched Pam fill out a form and hand it to Mom. Then Mom put the form in the thick manila envelope she carried in her purse.

I felt guilty. I couldn’t completely believe Mom, and yet the lie about Jennifer felt almost real. I tried to be like the Virgin Mary. When Gabriel came to her and said she was going to bear God’s child, she kept all her questions in her heart. She didn’t let doubts rise to her head, or even worse, burst from her mouth. The only trouble was, on top of all my other sins of thought and deed, I had sinned against both Mom and Jennifer, and Mary had never sinned at all. Her heart was clean and big, a spacious room where doubts wouldn’t grow beneath the pressure of being guarded under lock and key. Whereas my heart was a teeming jail cell. I was sure Saint Anne had never needed to use her magic telescope to keep track of her daughter.

One Saturday morning after therapy, Mom announced that Pam was going to take care of Lucy for a few hours while we went home. “Your father is there waiting for us,” she explained. “He’s coming to get his things. It’s a good time for you to tell him how Jennifer sexually abused you.”

When we came around the corner and our house came into sight, Dad was tossing big black trash bags into the station wagon at the end of the driveway. I wondered why he would go through all that trouble to pack the car when he was only moving across the street.

“Go ahead,” Mom prodded. She lit a cigarette and glared at Dad over my head.

Dad stood in front of me. Mom was beside me. I looked about for an escape. At the edge of our yard, a neighbor pretended not to watch us while his dog peed on a snowbank.

“Tell him.” Mom’s voice was a pointy icicle poking at the soft spot at the base of my throat. The fear of being pierced pushed the words up.

“Jennifer sexually abused me,” I whispered. The tingle that had begun in my cheeks at Pam’s house began to burn.

“I don’t believe you.” A bright December sun lit Dad’s face, making his eyes strangely pale. They had never seemed so high up and distant from me. He shook his head.

“What the hell are you doing, Karen?” Dad began to yell at Mom. I ran inside the house and into the broom closet. I began to pray. First, I prayed that Mom wouldn’t hear my prayer. Then, I prayed that Dad would find a way for me and Lucy to live with him. I prayed Dad still wanted me.

“He wants to be with that woman more than us,” Mom explained when she found me in the closet. “That’s why he won’t believe you. He’s leaving with Jennifer to drive across the country. He said he would call when he got to California.”

Now I understood why he had packed the bags in the station wagon. But I didn’t understand why he hadn’t said goodbye. Why he hadn’t asked me and Lucy to come with him.

~

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” I told Lucy, “why it’s better to look down your throat in the sheet fort. Now open up and say ah.”

My five-year-old sister obeyed, opening her chapped lips wide.

“Not that much.” I aimed the miniature flashlight that I had found in Dad’s tackle box toward the back of her throat. “Perfect. Hold it right there.”

I was looking for a miracle. For the past two years, since Dad had headed out west and Mom didn’t let us take his calls, Lucy had suffered from chronic tonsillitis. Mom was convinced that a faith healer named Father McBride would cure her.

Lucy pushed the flashlight away. “Did my tonsils shrink?”

“A little,” I lied and switched off the flashlight. “Let’s watch Fraulein Maria.”

The day after Dad left for California, I had made a fort from a calico, king-sized sheet that Dad used on the couch in the den where he slept during the last year he lived with us. Mom called the den “your father’s room” and refused to enter. When the days were damp, I could still smell Dad’s Old Spice after shave when I pressed the cotton to my face.

A part of Dad was in the sheet, which protected me and Lucy from Mom’s magic telescope. I had tested my theory thoroughly before I let Lucy enter the fort: I had stuck up one middle finger, and then the other, then waved the two middle fingers in the air. I had wondered if Saint Joseph and Mary had sex. I had reached down my underwear and touched my vagina. I had thought about how I hated it when Mom picked her nose in the line at the grocery store where everyone could see, and how I was ashamed to point her out at the school Christmas pageant when a classmate asked, “Which one is your mom?”

“Hurry up. I want to watch the movie.” Lucy’s voice was raspy, and even in the dim light I could see the dark smudges under her light green eyes, as if one of her kindergarten classmates had smeared her with grey finger paint.

I pressed play on the VCR. From the cave-like opening of our fort, we could see the TV. Lucy and I stretched side by side on our stomachs with our knees bent and my feet skimming the droopy middle of the sheet. We each had a pillow to cushion our bent elbows. Our hands rested beneath our chins. When we could escape chores, when I had finished my homework, we slipped downstairs to the den and started where we left off. For the past two years, we’d watched The Sound of Music on a continual loop.

Lucy poked me in the ribs. “Tell me now.”

“Shhh. Tell you what?”

“Why you can only look at my throat when we’re here.”

“Quiet. It’s almost time for ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen.’ There’s no reason. I was kidding.”

“Were not.” Lucy settled in closer “Tell me.”

“Remember doubting Thomas who wanted to stick his finger in Jesus’ side?”

“Ick, yes.”

“Checking your tonsils means I doubt Father McBride can heal you. Then God will take longer to shrink your tonsils because I don’t have faith. And Mom will get mad. But she can’t see me check your tonsils here.”

Lucy sat up and gripped my wrist, her fingers popsicle-sticky. “Why not?”

“She can’t see inside the fort with her magic telescope. I tested it out. This is our sanctuary.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, like church, when sinners are protected by the priest. Remember Dad told us about the hunchback Quasimodo who saves Esmeralda by running into the cathedral and yelling ‘sanctuary?’ I’ve been reading Dad’s book down here after you fall asleep.”

“I don’t fall asleep.” Lucy shook her head and pulled at the hangnail on her right thumb.

“Don’t pick at it. You’ll make it worse.”

“All you do is read.” Lucy curled her body into mine.

“All you do is fart. Get back on your own side.” I pinched her butt and she shrieked and slapped at me. She pretended to be mad, all the while waiting for me to pinch her again.

Lucy had always craved my attention; she wrapped it about her slight frame like the frayed, yellowing blanket that always hung from her wiry hand and tangled around her ankles. Sometimes Lucy doused the soiled rectangle of pilling felt with Mom’s Jean Naté After Bath Splash. She sprinkled it on her unwashed socks and underwear, too.

On days before doctor’s appointments, Mom took us to Caldor and let us pick something from the sale section to wear to the doctor’s office. Then the outfit disappeared into the pile of dirty clothes on the floor in the laundry room. I knew we would take a trip to Caldor soon. When I shone the flashlight down Lucy’s throat, I saw the yellow coating on her tonsils. The half- healed blisters from her last bout of strep were blooming. In a day or two, her ears would ache and her forehead would throb. A day more and she would be shivering with fever and vomiting. It happened like that every time Lucy got sick. Then Mom would call to make an emergency appointment.

“But didn’t God see you look down my throat?” Lucy whispered. “Even if Mom can’t see through the sheet, God still can. Can’t he?”

I pretended not to hear her.

~

Doctor Matthews’ receptionist beamed at us when we walked through the door. “What pretty little ladies you have, Mrs. Duggan.”

“I do what I can, with this one too chubby and this one so thin,” Mom sighed. “Poor Lucy can barely swallow, so it seems Bridget’s decided to eat for the two of them.”

I looked at the floor. Lucy was wearing two different shoes.

“Oh, it’s not that bad. A little baby fat now means less wrinkles when you’re our age. Isn’t that so, Bridget?” The receptionist flashed me a smile. “And how’s work treating you, Mrs. Duggan?”

“It’s always busy at the bank. I’m the drive-through teller now, and the line never ends.”

“It’s hard being a single mom,” the receptionist shook her head. “Believe me, I know. I barely handle it. I’d go crazy if my little one was sick all the time.”

Mom patted Lucy on the head. Lucy squirmed and I adjusted her blanket so that it wouldn’t fall from her shoulders. She leaned her head against my hip.

“At least you have your big girl helping you.”

“Bridget’s my smarty.” Mom forgot herself and smiled. She usually was careful not to. She hated how dark her cigarette-stained teeth appeared against her pale face. “All A’s. Already reading Victor Hugo. Though not in French, yet.”

Like Mom, hefty, white-haired Doctor Matthews almost never smiled. Sometimes it seemed he tried, but the smile got stuck midway, as if his brittle lips lacked the muscles to turn upwards at the ends. For a year, Doctor Matthews had been saying that Lucy’s tonsils should be removed. Penicillin didn’t help her. But Mom said our visits to church would, if we truly believed. I feared that my doubts, which came up unexpected and shameful like burps when I ate too quickly, were slowing Lucy’s miracle.

After he examined Lucy and wrote another prescription for penicillin, Mom asked Doctor Matthews to take a look at me because I was getting too fat.

“Sexual abuse,” Mom said. “Her father won’t believe his own child. She eats the pain.”

I kept my eyes down. Ashamed to be dressed only in a sheet. Ashamed of the freckled skin that bulged over the strap when he took my blood pressure. Afraid the knot in my stomach might fray and let me split open.

“Is she still seeing a therapist?” Doctor Matthews asked as he tapped my back and listened to me breathe.

“Of course.” Mom pulled the manila envelope with the forms Pam had signed from her purse and handed it to Doctor Matthews. Then she pushed me out the door.

“That doctor’s a fool.” Mom sucked a menthol cigarette as she pulled out of the parking lot. “Wants a damn tonsillectomy. Let some strangers hack into my child. She’s too weak to go under.” Mom swerved to miss a squirrel darting across the street. Lucy dozed in the backseat.

“Do you know what they do in a tonsillectomy, Bridget?”

Mom and I had this conversation each time we took Lucy to see Doctor Matthews.

“They cut out the tonsils and put them on a plate.” Mom nearly spat the words. In the bright midday light, I saw little flecks of saliva rocket from her mouth and hit the windshield.

I thought of the martyr whose feast day Lucy was born on. Could Lucy really die from the operation? Or would she die of hunger first if the miracle didn’t happen soon? Lucy could only eat yogurt and popsicles when her throat was this inflamed, and Doctor Matthews said she had lost four pounds in the three weeks since he had last examined her.

Mom spied my thoughts and said, “Saint Lucy died for Christ only after many tortures. If only our Lucy had some of your strength. We should have named her for the saint of fire, instead of you. But your father insisted. Always did anything to please his witch of a mother. She hated her name and he hated her, and yet he passed Bridget on to his first-born anyway.”

I pressed my cheek against the cool window, closed my eyes and squeezed them tight. I tried to forget all the thoughts that were in my head. But squeezing my face so hard only seemed to make the knot in my stomach tighten. It was an unbearable ache but I knew a quick fix.

“Can we stop for a steak and cheese and frappe on the way home?” I asked.

Lucy and I were allowed to take our subs downstairs to the den. There, in the center of the wood-paneled room and shelves stacked with Dad’s books, waited our sheet fort. The television was positioned a few feet from its entrance. We sat in our sanctuary and watched The Sound of Music. I ate, while Lucy broke pieces from her meatball sandwich. Her tongue rolled them from side to side in her mouth, letting them disintegrate so that she could swallow. When she pushed her plate away and snuggled up to me, I didn’t shove her away like I sometimes did. Together, we mouthed the lines we knew by heart.

“I’m Gretel, and I have a sore finger.” On the screen, Fraulein Maria bent down and kissed the youngest child’s bandaged pinky.

“What a baby,” Lucy tried to roll her eyes, but instead made a big circle with her head. Then she stuck her thumb, scabbed where she had torn the hangnail off, under my nose. “Gretel gets so much attention for nothing.”

“I warned you about picking at it. Don’t think I’m going to kiss that nasty thing.”

Lucy grinned. “You’re meaner than the Baroness who wants to marry Captain Von Trapp.”

When The Sound of Music ended, I read aloud beneath the glow of the flashlight. It only took two paragraphs of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Lucy to begin to snore. I shone the light on her swelling chest, a delicate cage where her lungs struggled for the small amounts of air that arrived from her blocked windpipe. I kept on reading in a whisper, “You would have imagined her at one moment a maniac, at another a queen.”

I read the line over and over, and thought of Mom at the doctor’s office. She hadn’t seemed a queen to Doctor Matthews and the receptionist, but she hadn’t seemed a maniac either. Mom had seemed just what she wanted to seem: a mother. In her concern for Lucy’s tonsils, for my trauma, there was no sign of the crazed woman suddenly screaming incoherently about how mean her father had been or how our father had left her. In the doctor’s office, she did not seem like a woman who would slam the kitchen cabinets until Lucy and I got down on our knees on the linoleum and begged her to stop. When we pleaded, entreating her with “I love you,” she would stop shrieking about fathers and yell at us for crying on the floor.

“What am I, a monster? Stop making me feel like a monster!”

“No, Mom, you’re the best mother ever!” Lucy and I were a chorus.

The slamming, yelling and begging would continue until Lucy choked on her sobs and began coughing uncontrollably. When Mom’s screams lit my nerves on fire, the blood raced from my heart and the water emptied from my mouth; all the liquid in my body rushed to put the flames out, and yet I never completely withered. That is how someone might die when burning at the stake outside a cathedral in medieval Paris, I learned that night as I read The Hunchback.

~

“Are the backseat doors locked, Lucy? Bridget, reach back there and make sure. And double check your door, too.”

Mom always hated the drive we took through Boston’s poorest neighborhoods to attend the Mass given by Father McBride on Wednesday nights in Roxbury. But tonight, two days after the appointment with Doctor Matthews, Mom seemed particularly tense. I had overheard her talking with Pam on the phone before we left the house, and sensed that the doctor had given Mom some sort of deadline to schedule Lucy for surgery. As we scurried from the parking lot into the church, I heard Mom mumbling, “This time. Let it be this time.”

Inside, the streetlights shone through the stained-glass windows, so that the pastel frescoes – Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes, Saint Michael the archangel dressed in blue and gold, his spear poised to pierce the snake – were on the verge of slipping into shadows. Tall white candles flickered over creaky wooden pews filled with sick parishioners. I counted the crutches – wooden ones, metal walkers, a leopard-print cane – displayed around the altar, to see if there were more than last week. They had belonged to people who’d been healed.

Lucy was fast asleep by the time it was her turn to be blessed by Father McBride. Her head tipped backwards, a loud snore rising from her open mouth.

“Everybody has a cross,” Mom said, carrying Lucy in her arms. She looked like a statue of the pietà when she knelt at the altar and bowed her head before the priest. That is, if Jesus had been a five-year-old girl. I tried to swallow my sacrilege, but it stuck in the back of my throat. My head felt hot, and I hoped Mom was too preoccupied to notice me.

I tried to focus on Father McBride. He had bright blue eyes, and kindness shone from his round, freckled face. Mom whispered many words in a rush, and he replied with a few. The priest was painfully shy, and always quick to get down to the business of praying. The soft incantations he murmured over Lucy were weighted with a heavy accent, like that of the Red Sox announcer on the sports radio Dad used to listen to in the car.

Father McBride began to pray, “Saint Blaise, Christians down the centuries have asked your intercession for their throat ailments, and you have proven your closeness to Jesus by the long list of miracles attributed to your name…”

He’s done Saint Blaise so many times, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking. Why doesn’t he try something different? Why not pray to Lucy’s saint?

Father McBride crossed the long white candles over Lucy’s throat. They were supposed to form a crucifix, but tonight looked like two long knives. I felt dizzy, and my armpits were moist. For the first time, I could smell my perspiration. It reminded me of Mom’s sweaters.

When the knives became scalpels cutting into Lucy’s skin, I looked away from my sister and to the altar. There, on the gold Eucharist plate, were two crimson tonsils, beating like miniature hearts. I shut my eyes, counted to ten, then slowly opened them. The two gelatinous blobs were still there, but now they were eyes. Pale green eyes like Lucy’s, staring at me.

Lucy’s eyes blinked on the gold plate. I began to sway, unsteady on my feet.

“Bridget, go sit down,” Mom hissed. She had freed a hand from under Lucy and placed it on my forehead. “You’re as pale as a ghost and burning up.”

I glanced again at the gold plate. It was empty. I looked to Lucy’s throat, once again crossed by two white candles.

~

“Lucy gets a miracle for her birthday,” Mom said. She had decided that if the operation were performed on the day Lucy turned six, she would be stronger and more likely to survive than when she was only four or five.

Mom had ordered pink and purple balloons to greet Lucy when she was wheeled back from the surgery into her hospital room. She tied them to the bars on the side of the bed, to the armchairs in each corner of the room, and to the heart monitor. The nurse untied them from the monitor and Mom frowned at her. “I’m a single mother, you know.”

“Well now, that’s just fine,” the thick-hipped nurse said as she walked out of the room. “Just ring if you need me.” Her accent was soft and round in my ears.

“Those Jamaicans are all lazy,” Mom muttered.

“How do you know she’s Jamaican?” I asked. “Because of how she talks?”

“Because she’s brown and lazy,” Mom said. “Now hush.”

Lucy was wheeled in asleep. Her dull brown hair was pulled back from her face and in the light that streamed through the window, I could see the peach fuzz on her sunken cheeks.

Mom sat in a chair, and I stood by the bed to wait for Lucy to wake. I pictured her tonsils, like two engorged fruit snacks on a plate.

The nurse returned. “I’m just going to check her vitals.” Mom nodded, then lowered her head and rested her chin on her chest.

I had packed Lucy’s hospital bag for her, and stuffed the calico sheet beneath her felt blanket and the new pajamas, socks and underwear Mom had let me pick out at Caldor.

I glanced at Mom, her chin still on her chest. I pulled the sheet from the bag and whispered to the nurse, “Can I cover my sister with this?”

“Don’t see why not. Is it her favorite?”

“It’s both of our favorites.”

Mom stirred in the chair. “Bridget, what is that?”

“Nothing.” I gripped a corner of the sheet between my fingers.

She glared daggers, but that’s all she could do with the nurse watching her.

It was then that I saw my silent words float across the room. And I let my thoughts write themselves in wild cursive, like vines growing rapidly to reach Mom’s face and wrap around her mind. Don’t you know what I’m doing? Can’t you see what I’m thinking? There is no miracle. Lucy could have been healed so long ago.

I lifted a finger from the sheet, and then another. Then I let go of the fabric altogether. I put my hands to my stomach and shouted in my head. You can’t hear me. You’ve never known what I’m thinking, never seen what I do.