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.
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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.
by Scott Alumbaugh
Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize