The red apple

Archive for the category “short story”

Cafe Minerva (Short Story)

Rumors once said that there was a place in the Kowloon Walled City, where you could write a message to the past. People whispered about it in hushed tones. It was a folklore between floors 7 and 12. A few families on floor 3 believed it feverishly, but would never speak of it. You could ask them where to find this place, but all who speak of it, won’t know. And those who know, won’t speak of it.

When I first heard of it, I had overheard an angry old Cantonese man rambling to himself as he walked down the damp, dark hallway to his apartment. Like any other hallway in the Walled City, it was grungy as hell. Sparks screeched out of loose wiring pinned to the wall. A dim yellow bulb hung bare like a hangman from a wire. It flickered, casting light to the blackened walls and floor, water dripping everywhere. I was walking back to my apartment too, and had to follow this old man through the narrow hallway. He was a neighbor in a sense. Everyone in this goddamn city was a neighbor in a way. When you have to rub your dirty grimy elbows with every other monkey in this fuckin cage, I guess it makes you all neighbors.

I had heard this old guy was crazy. I’m talking about a – staring at a wall, screaming curse words, and then curling into a ball in a pool of your own piss – kind of crazy. Word was, a year ago, he kicked his grandson out of the apartment, told him to find a job, and provide some income for the family. The kid goes out, tries to join a gang the next day. The kid tries to rob someone as initiation into the gang, but instead gets brutally murdered. Something like that. The kid was gone. I heard the old man’s wailing night after night, until he resolved to whimpers every night, and finally a desolate silence. He’s completely mad now.

But as I walked behind him that night, I heard a certain determination in his voice. I couldn’t understand the guy perfectly, I only knew a few words of cantonese myself, being a foreigner. But I started paying attention to his quiet rambling. It sounded like he was speaking to someone. Asking questions, chuckling, telling stories. Strange was typical for him, but I could tell something was very off. That’s when I heard him slip the words. “Cafe Minerva”. I’ve never heard this man speak a word of english before today, in the 4 years that I’ve lived next to him. I’ve heard him yelling at his pet cat, heard him buying things at the market, heard him muttering to himself. Even heard him through the walls when he hired that hooker from the first floor. But never have I heard him use a single word outside of Cantonese. He reached his apartment, and fumbled with his keys. He giggled when he finally found the key. Unlocking the door, he went in.

A few days later, I was having a drink with another white friend who resided in this shit cavern of a city. We sloshed down beers as we watched the football game on a tiny television screen near the top floor of the east side, the game barely recognizable on the screen through the static. The smoke from our cigarettes swirled in the sticky air, and glowed under the neon lights that lit the dim room. The neon light flickered on and off, like the stuttering soul of this dilapidated city.

“You ever heard of a place called ‘Cafe Minerva’? ” I asked my friend.

He frowned and ashed his cigarette in his empty bottle. “I’ve heard some stories about it. They say it’s the devil’s front door. I’ve no idea where it is though.” He was fluent in Chinese and Cantonese, unlike me, so he had a much better idea of what was spoken in these dark corridors. We were both ex-pats, globetrotting, and met a series of unfortunate circumstances that got us stuck in this city.

“I heard old man Chang muttering something yesterday as he went home, and he mentioned ‘Cafe Minerva’. It unnerved me for some reason.” I told him. “You would think I’d be used to his craziness by now.”

“Well, they don’t tell you much about it, they get especially hushed around white guys like us, but I heard about it when I was getting a haircut at Leung’s shop on the seventh floor. Some crazed lady next to me was telling her barber that there was a place where you could write a message on the wall, and whatever you wrote would be sent to your past self as a message. Sounded like some folklore bullshit to me, so I didn’t pay too much attention” he explained.

“Did you catch where they said it was?”

“Not exactly. She mentioned the North side of the city, near the middle floor.”

I nodded. We watched the rest of the football game in silence.

Several days later, I was headed to the North side of the city, trying to find the shoe smith who could repair my dress shoes. I was hoping to land a job interview soon outside of this city; to finally have a chance to get the hell out of here. But the only nice shoes I had were a pair of leather dress shoes that were pretty torn up, that I got for the price of a meal and a half. I had to get it fixed. I wandered the halls, hoping to see the Chinese symbols for “Shoes” that my friend had written on a piece of paper for me, so that I could find the shoe smith. The air was thick, and smelled like oil and moss, a damp scent that bothered my nose. No matter, I kept on searching, wandering the halls, until something caught my eyes. It was an old sign, something that looked like it had come from an European coffee shop a decade ago. It was made with wood and metal, and had a simple picture of a coffee cup engraved on it, with steam rising from the cup. My skin tingled when I read the words… ‘Cafe Minerva’.

The sign was mounted on the wall, a dark corner at the end of an empty corridor filled with garbage. Barely noticeable, I was surprised I saw it at all. Yet it looked so out of place, this sign, surrounded by boxes with chinese characters on it, and all the other garbage that this city could produce. My gaze fell on the wall under the sign. Handwriting covered the grimy wall, markers, pens, and a few people had even engraved their words with a knife or stick. The entire wall was covered, words over words, messages over messages. There was no way to read any individual message, as words were written over each other over the years. My eyes scanned them all, my mind still trying to comprehend what I had found. It was like an insane asylum’s message board. Near the bottom, I found a familiar handwriting. They were basic words in Cantonese, and I understood them. I pieced them together.

“The greatest gift is life” it read.

It was Old Man Chang’s handwriting. I could have recognized it anywhere. I saw it on his own apartment’s walls whenever I glimpsed into his room when I walked past every day. Shaken, I walked back to my own apartment.

When I arrived, I took out my keys, and went in.

My apartment had a terrible stench. A stale scent of death lingered heavily. I gagged, almost vomited before I ran out into the hallway. Looking back into my room, I noticed a dark stain on the wall near the floor. It was speckled with dead flies. It looked like an old blood stain, seeping through the wall from Old Man Chang’s room.

Shaking, I knocked on Old Man Chang’s door. Nothing. As the fear crept up my spine, and the world spun in slow motion, I leaned back and kicked in his front door. Immediately I turned and heaved, my vomit splattering on the hallway floor as my senses were overwhelmed with what I saw and smelled in that instant.

The withering remains of a man lay on the floor, dried and decomposed blood splattered on the floor around him. Dried blood was on the walls. There were no flies, no maggots. No life in the room, even those who feasted on death. I tried to piece together a hoarse scream, but could not. But how could this have happened? I left my apartment this morning, I would have smelt this terrible odor of death, I would  have noticed. I saw Old Man Chang just the other day! I was confused as I ran, and called the police.

The detectives who finally showed up with the coroners, explained to me that my neighbor must have been killed by his grandson, approximately a year ago. They found a butcher knife on the ground with the grandson’s prints. The old man’s wallet was out, with cash splayed out over the table. Apparently, the boy had tried to rob his grandfather, and then murdered the old man as part of some gang initiation. This was a year ago. The kid must have fled the scene, and never came back. The detective looked unfazed as he explained it to me, as though he were reporting the weather, a daily occurrence. Then he suggested that I see a psychologist. He had a hard time believing that I had lived in the room next to Old Man Chang for a year with his dead body rotting next door all this time. I should really get myself checked out, and probably find another empty room to squat in until the smell airs out.

I thought about my neighbor’s scrawled message on the wall under the Cafe Minerva sign. Old Man Chang must have been the one who killed his grandson originally. But after a year of crushing guilt, he found a way to send himself a message in the past, and allowed his grandson to live, and kill him instead.

I left the Walled City in the weeks after that. I found a job that took me close to Shenzhen, and eventually to Beijing, and I found myself making my way back to the United States. I heard when they razed the Walled City in the 90’s. In that demolition, they destroyed the walls, the garbage, and the crime rates. But they also destroyed the darkness, a moment of magic, a place and time in this universe where something uncanny occurred. I saw in the depths of that dark city what it meant to be a human. I saw what it meant to feel remorse, and to atone for sins. I saw humans slide from being men into becoming beasts, but in the midst of the smoke and dripping pipes, in the shadowy corridors and flickering lights, I saw a soul, the shuddering soul of the city, and goddamn it was beautiful.

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Three Cherimoyas

What does it take to know a city?

To know a city, is to know mankind. Our species is a story that is told over and over on every corner of this globe, unable to escape the fundamental longings that drive us. Like a fish longs for water, or a bird longs for the sky. We are driven by desires, and time and time again, we return to our carnal selves. Underneath the clothing, the flesh and sinews; underneath the name and title, we are nothing more than our primal desires, wearing the skin of the land.

There’s a part of Los Angeles that feels the breeze of the eastern winds. For many people, Chinatown is just another segment of the map, another discolored stain on the rug that is the City of Angels. Like its eastern muse, Chinatown is overpopulated and crowded. Narrow alleyways packed full of tourists, locals, and stragglers wandering through the town. These alleys are lined with vendors in their tiny stalls, peddling anything from fake designer t shirts to knives and bongs. Jade trinkets tinkle in each miniature shop, assuring you that it harnesses the ancient luck of authentic Chinese legends. You could flip any product upside down and find a “Made in China” sticker, if that vendor was honest enough to leave the sticker on. The once great dragon known as China, has been tamed so that its grandchildren could work in factories and churn out trinkets for the whims of the West.

The shop owners tell a story of their own, with their faces. In all likelihood, this shop is their life. It is their livelihood, clustered here with hundreds of others. No sign or title, no name above their shop. Impossible to find again in the maze of ever shifting faces. Their shops reminded me of the American dream. In their weary eyes, they told the tale of a journey. They looked like immigrants who may have come here yearning for the American dream, but upon arrival, decided it was too expensive, and settled for a meager life. And so every morning, they reported to their own shop, and repeated the phrase “two shirts for five dollars”. Over and over, day after day, week after week, until unbeknownst to them, some banker in Europe makes a decision that causes cotton prices to rise. Then they learn a new phrase. “Two shirts for six dollars”. I felt a sense of awe towards their stamina, their resilience. They had no names, no face, and no voice. Yet on their shoulders stood Chinatown in all its glory, as well as the rest of the great Los Angeles.

I ventured into Chinatown with two friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There, we perused the shelves of miniature bamboos and toys, the trinkets and souvenirs, taking in the sight and smell that was the LA Chinatown. We shifted through the masses like three apples in a turbulent ocean. Finally, we reached a quiet corner of the city where we took a breath and stood in the sun.

As we looked around, we noticed an old Chinese woman selling fruits by the stairs. She had no storefront, no shelves. There was no shop, simply an old woman who found an empty space on the ground, and began selling her fruits. In fact, I was willing to bet she had no license or other forms of legitimacy for her fruit business. To the city of Los Angeles, she was a ghost, sitting in a forgotten corner of Chinatown. She had her entire inventory on the concrete before her feet. A box of Lychee fruit, some citrus fruits, and a box of Cherimoya fruit. I could only guess how long she had to sell all of these fruits before they went bad in the smog filled city air, and with those fruits, her livelihood for the week. My friend remembered that she needed to bring home some Lychee for her mom, so we went to the old woman to purchase fruits.

I crouched and inspected the Cherimoya. The Cherimoya is a very unexpected fruit to us westerners. I’ve only had it once in my life before seeing it that day. I still remembered my first time seeing the Cherimoya fruit. It was in Taiwan, when I was a child visiting my grandfather. He stopped at a street vendor like I did, and began selecting Cherimoyas. Having never seen a Cherimoya before, I confused them with dreadful Artichokes after a quick glance. But my grandfather told me to trust him as he picked out a bag of ripe, green, scaled fruits. When we got home, he grasped one with both hands and split it wide. He revealed a fleshy white fruit bound around black seeds, a simple and sweet fruit that tasted amazingly like candy. “You have to pick the good ones”, he told me, eyes fixed on the fruit in his hand. “These are a native fruit to Taiwan.” I told him I had never seen this fruit before, and I was amazed at how sweet it was. My grandfather chuckled, happy to show his grandson another bit of this world.

I told the old Chinese lady behind the stairs that I wanted 3 Cherimoyas. I lifted three fingers to punctuate my point, elucidating my broken Chinese. She placed the three Cherimoyas on a scale. Two point three pounds. She ran the numbers in her head. “$5.25” she told me after she calculated it.

I handed her six dollars and tried telling her to keep the change. She didn’t seem to understand, so I explained slower in my broken Chinese that I didn’t need the change. She seemed to appreciate the gesture, but still was hesitant to let me leave having paid more than she asked, even if it was only a few cents. She grabbed a handful of Lychee fruits and slid them into my bag for free. Her integrity surprised me. Here, in the heart of Chinatown, was an old, hard working, and honest Chinese woman who savored the value of a fair trade. In her squinted eyes, and hunched back, a certain wisdom glimmered, and I had the vague sensation that she knew far more about this world than I did. Perhaps she was more than the heart of Chinatown. Perhaps she was the soul of the city.

We plunged back into the darkness of the market, pushing and shoving through the crowd to get out. We heard cymbals and drums, and the clanging of traditional Chinese New Years music. A tiny parade of about six teenagers were performing a Chinese New Year ceremony to bless the local shops, in exchange for tips from the shop owners. They were in full regalia, leading a faux dragon behind a masked monk. As they danced through the narrow aisles, tourists and shoppers swarmed around them, snapping pictures on their phones and cameras, smiling excitedly at witnessing this pivotal Chinese experience. The three of us watched with intrigue. Suddenly, my friend felt a tug on her purse, and when she looked down, it was opened and her wallet was missing. While we were entranced by the display of culture and tradition, someone had snatched her wallet.

After the cursing and the feelings of helplessness, we called the bank to cancel the credit cards. I looked up and saw the setting sun. The golden rays spilled over graffiti splayed walls, over tarp and tin buildings, tall business parks and urban apartments. The sun was setting on another day in Chinatown, where the human will to live took another form and wore the mask of culture. Life spoke another language in this town, one that had the subtle dialect of money, carried by the eastern winds. This was another part of Los Angeles where dreams lived and died, and where people strove to get by, one way or another. We witnessed the two sides of a city that day, both of them faceless, but more real than we could ever imagine.

And so I ask again. What does it take to know a city? Perhaps it is to taste its fruits, regardless of where it was grown, whether it is sour or sweet. It is to hear its language, whether it has a voice or not. It is to be robbed by it, yet still stand in awe of it. But like the Cherimoya, you must choose to see that it is good, and venture forth.

Traffic

Damn.

Five lanes, and no one is moving. Four o’clock on the interstate seems to be a witching hour that exposes the soul of the city. In this city of Angels, everyone seems like a demon.

My sweaty palms slip off the steering wheel and rest on my knees. The car in front lurches forward, and a minivan cuts in before I could move. I stopped caring about getting cut off a while ago, and now stare at the dusty car in front of me with an apathetic eye. Somewhere down the line, I hear a loud honk.

This road was a portrait of America. A road full of people, packed into their individual compartments, tugged along by one promise or another. All of them chasing a dream of being home, of being anywhere else but here. I suppose it goes to show that when everyone races for their dreams, they only share the nightmare of a gridlock. Everyone was coming from somewhere different. Office dwellers getting off from their 9 to 5, racing home to a cold dinner and an 8 hour nap before returning to their suit and tie cage. Minivans with kids in the back, exhausted from some after-school practice. Truckers sedated by the everlasting spirit of the road. Here, people were coming back from building their dreams.

The American dream is a road. It promises to take you somewhere, but everywhere you look, you find only the dismayed stares of the transient. We cling to this promise like rubber clings to asphalt on a summer day in Los Angeles. We insist that it’s ours, and lay claim to it like we do to the strip of black between the dotted white lines. But so often, we forget that the road is a force. The road is a flow that we are subjects to; no more kings of this road than moths are of the wind.

And so in these listless eyes, I see myself. In their seething anger, their shifty suspicions, in their desolate desperation.

We leave the day behind with the promise that night will bring solace. But the smog from our cars keep the stars from shining each night. Traffic is a moment of hope, in which hundreds of city-dwellers unify for one drive. Banding together for the practice of individuality, we find ourselves living this narrow contradiction.

Someone moves a few inches. Someone honks. God.Damn.Indeed.

Absolution

There’s a place in Mexico where the dust swirls in a very particular way. Where the sun tilts a glaring face at it from all angles of the sky, baking the earth. It’s an arid desert land, tilled by migrant laborers and farmers. It’s not too unlike other dusty slums south of the border, where the men work all day so the kids can watch their mothers hang the laundry under a dry Mexican sun. I was ten years old when I visited this little town, my first time south of the border.

I was just a kid. My mind thought about the things of God as much as I thought about how fast an ant could crawl, or how far I could hurl a stone. I knew nothing of the divine, nor did the divine disturb me. Divinity. Divinity was the fruit at the top of the tree, just beyond my reach. Nonetheless, God was the reason I was here in Mexico. I had come with my church group, to preach the gospel, and deliver supplies.

Rocks tumbled before my toes as I walked through their town. I strayed between their houses, inspecting the walls they had built for shelter. Through the rusted tin walls and crumbling cardboard, I saw an occasional chicken, tied to a post, waiting to be slaughtered for dinner. The floors were bare dirt. Their homes were a simple affair. Children’s eyes, not much younger than me, peered out from the shadows, watching me walk by under the noontime sun. I was in the light, as they were in the dark.

A little girl ran up to me. Urgency was in her eyes.

The air burned with a certain kind of grace that day, the kind that makes a sinner scowl in the dusty wind.

She pointed back towards her ramshackle house. Her mother stood at the door, cradling a baby in her arms. She waved to me, beckoning me to come over. Another boy from my church came to my side to see what the commotion was about, and together we went to the mother.

“My baby is dying”, my friend whispered the English translation from the desperate mother’s lips. The mother had tears in her wrinkled eyes. She lowered the baby boy. He had a glazed look on his face, where he should have been full of life and movement. “The doctors say he has a tumor.”

She pointed to the massive lump on the side of the baby’s head. Stitches lined the bump. “The doctors performed surgery before, but the tumor came back… even worse.”

My throat stifled a choke. I, in my infinite immaturity, in my inexperience with mortality, now stood at the face of Death. I was a child, and the vast expanse of eternity now stood before me. For the first time, I faced the window beyond this life, and peering into the darkness, I had nothing to say.

“Please, can you pray for my baby? Perhaps God will heal him.” Her voice wavered.

What did I know about God? Was I now a qualified spokesman for the infinite Deity that created all existence? Was I now a salesman of solace, a preacher of peace? Oh lord, if there was ever a moment I wanted to see God, it was then and there, at that very moment. My eyes followed the stitches on the infant’s head. His eyes were peaceful, his chest gently rising and falling with each breath. His blanket was brown from all the dust in that god-forsaken town. I had no choice but to call out to God. And oh how deeply I prayed that God would hear me. The god of my Sunday School stories, and of my bedside prayers. The one who granted me action figures on Christmas, and helped me on my math test. I tried to conjure this same god in that dusty town in Mexico.

I nodded.

I lowered my head and reached out my hand shakily, resting it gently on the infant’s shoulder. The mother, and everyone around me quickly followed suit. “Dear Lord,” I whispered.

When I prayed as a child, I would have two voices. I would speak out a formal prayer with my lips, but in my mind and heart, I begged and pleaded for god to speak to me. This silent voice inside was the most earnest one. It had the innocent yearning for substance, and curiosity for the truth. I slammed each word of my prayer into my heart, hoping, wishing, that somehow these words would go to the Creator. That he who could heal, would come and heal.

In that moment before I opened my eyes after the prayer, the entirety of the divine must have flashed before me. In that single moment, that mere second before my eyes opened, the fullness of God must have stood before me. For, if I, as a child, praying for another cancer inflicted infant could not find god behind my closed eyes in that moment, then where could God be? If the decadence of the heavens was not revealed to me in that moment, in that dusty town in Mexico, then who could that glory be saved for?

I yearned more than I ever could. I begged, and begged. Hating myself for not being able to beg harder. For not being able to hear God, for not being able to issue his grace like the soothsayers of earlier times. Because an infant’s life was now in my hands. I was the spokesman of god, a god that I believed in, and had come to preach about. I was here on behalf of a god who I had claimed could heal their infant. The hope was suffocating.

There’s a dusty little town in Mexico, where I met my God. In that little town, I came to know myself, and my place in this world. There’s a dusty little town where I found absolution.

The Mother and the Son


The light that filtered into Jennifer’s convenience store wore a gray tint. It was sunlight, but it was far from golden. This light had a faded silver hue that bore the resemblance of the rain clouds, but carried the glow of the sun; a marriage of opposites that gave birth to a quiet aura in her meager shop. The store was empty as it was on most days, with nothing but a small television behind the counter to fill the air with sounds. Jennifer’s brows furrowed when she watched television, a habit she constantly tried to correct. She was in her mid-forties, and she hated wrinkles. She had a strict demeanor, one that could fool any boy into believing she was a math teacher. Luckily for her, she had very few wrinkles on her thin face. In fact, she looked rather young for her age, despite the stern look in her eyes. This was a good thing in her opinion, because her Korean upbringing taught her to value aesthetic beauty. She didn’t consider herself beautiful, but at least she didn’t have many wrinkles.

She realized she was frowning and stopped herself. The television was playing a documentary on wild animals, and at the moment it was describing the furry animal known as the Golden Hamster. The small creature looked so feeble, she thought.

“In Arabic, this hamster’s name is translated into ‘Mr. Saddlebags’, a name attributed to the expandable cheeks used to store food. Female Golden Hamsters are known to abandon or even eat their newborns if they feel threatened or inexperienced. This behavior is a result of – ”

Jennifer shut the television off. She stood and went to make sure the shelves were stocked. As she stood up, the small bell hanging over the door rattled and a young man stepped into the store. He smiled with charm as he waved a good afternoon. He walked in slowly, perusing the shelves for anything he might need. Black hair slicked back, dress shirt buttoned tight, he looked like he had just stepped out of an office nearby for a lunch break. Jennifer watched the young man with intrigue. There weren’t many Koreans in this area. Most of the people who came to this part of town were Marines going to work at the base across the street, or worked in the offices next to her shop.

The young man brought a tuna sandwich to the counter, still smiling. “Good afternoon!” he said to her cheerily.

She smiled. It was nice when customers were pleasant, and the empty store always made her long for conversation. “Good afternoon to you too.”

As Jennifer scanned the sandwich’s barcode, the young man glanced at the wall behind her, and pointed to a box of cigarettes, asking for it politely. She hesitated before taking it down and scanning it. She wished he didn’t smoke. He was the same age as her son should be now. She was always saddened when she saw young people smoking, as if they didn’t care about their lives. “That’ll be eight dollars and fifty three cents.”

He bit his lip as he dug into his back pocket for his wallet. He slid a debit card across the counter, and looked around the store. “So how long have you been here?”

“Quite a few years now. I bought this store about ten years ago.”

“Oh. Do you run it by yourself? You don’t have kids or a husband to help you watch shop?”

“No, my husband left a long time ago.” She shrugged. “He went back to Seoul.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” The young man looked embarrassed.

Jennifer smiled. “It’s ok. At least I still have this shop.”

“So you’re Korean too?”

“Yes! And you are too?”

“Yeah. I was born here though. I’ve never been back to Korea. How is it there?”

Jennifer reminisced for a second. “It’s beautiful there.”

“I would imagine it is. I really hope I get a chance to go back someday.”

Jennifer smiled. “I’m really sorry, but I have to check your ID.”

“Of course!” The young man handed her his driver’s license. Next to his charming DMV portrait was the name Jeremy Kim Brentwood.

Jennifer stared at the card. Brentwood. She knew this name. It was a name that had been on her mind for many years. Her hand quivered slightly. She knew this boy.

“Everything ok?” Jeremy asked her. “I swear I’m over 18,” he joked.

She forced a smile. “I’m sorry, I was just trying to find your birthday on there. They print the numbers so small.”

They talked a little more, and Jennifer tried her best to hide how shaken she was. He finally waved goodbye and walked out the door with the tuna sandwich and box of Marlboros. Jennifer watched him leave, dazed. She had just sold cigarettes to her son that she hadn’t seen since she brought him into this world.
————————————

Twenty two years ago, Jennifer was in a hospital bed. Her screams filled the pristine halls as doctors and nurses wheeled her as fast as they could to the delivery room. She was surrounded by people she didn’t know. She could almost recognize her husband’s gaze in the doctor’s reassuring face, but she reminded herself that he had left the week before. He left her in America with a child on the way, a few hundred dollars, and his last name of Kim. She chose to keep her unfaithful husband’s last name because she wanted her son to have a name, to have an identity, even if it was the name of a man who was no longer here. She had never been so alone, even with life throbbing in her, beating, kicking, and fighting for breath.

The doctors handed the crying infant to an exhausted Jennifer. She caressed him gently, a tear rolling down her cheek. He’s so perfect. She knew his name already. She would give him a name from their family book, the book that tracked their lineage. He would have a name that her father’s fathers have had. She wept, wondering if he will ever know a father.

After she had gotten enough rest, the nurses were whispering over a clipboard outside her room. A doctor nodded, and briskly strode through the glass door. “Mrs. Kim?”

Jennifer looked at him.

“We’ve been reviewing your situation, and as you know, the hospital has to take the family situation into account.” He looked like he was having a hard time coming up with words. “The records show that the father isn’t in the country anymore, and is not liable for the child. Additionally, your financial situation is pretty dire, as you don’t have an income, and you don’t list any family that could support you.”

Jennifer stared at him.

“Social Services won’t take your son, but they just want you to know that there are options. In your current situation, it may be extremely hard for you to raise him on your own, and it might not be the best for him. If he were adopted-”

“No,” she said defiantly.

“Ma’am, I understand that this is very difficult to deal with right now, of all times. But it’s very important, that if you do decide, it’s best to decide soon so that we can begin the process to find him a good family, and place him in a healthy home. His life with an adopted family could give him a much better life. I’m just letting you know that it’s an option, that’s all. Give it some thought, and get some rest.”

The doctor turned and slid the door shut behind him quietly.

That night was the most torturous night of her life. She couldn’t stop the stream of tears that covered her face. Her eyes grew swollen by the morning, tormented by emotions, guilt at every turn, and pain that she had never imagined possible. She cried out to god in desperation. The night shift hospital staff bit their lips as they heard the anguish in her voice, reverberating.

She had no tears left in by the morning. She held her sleeping child, whispering to him in her native tongue, giving him the blessings that her own mother had once given her. She spent the next few days with the child, despite the doctor’s warnings against her bonding with the child, that it would make bonding with his adopted family more difficult. Once she had finished resting, and it was time to leave the hospital, she told them one thing. Her son was to bear the name Kim. Somewhere in his identity, he was to keep his father’s name. To know that he came from somewhere, that he had roots, even if he didn’t know where they led to. They told her that a wealthy family, the Brentwoods, had already been in line to adopt, and the application process had been going miraculously smooth.

She chose to give him up.
————————————
Days passed since Jeremy had visited Jennifer’s shop. She spent those days tidying the shop, wondering if he would ever come back to buy cigarettes. She opened the store early each morning, nervous, glancing at the clock frequently. Finally, three days later, he strode back in to the store. She jumped to her feet.

“Morning! Do you still have those Marlboro Lights?” He asked kindly.

Jennifer glanced back at the wall. She cursed silently, they had run out. Why didn’t she think to restock? “I’m so sorry, we’re out.” Her mind raced to suggest another brand.

“It’s ok, I’ll just have a pack of Camel lights then. You don’t need my card again, do you? You remember me right?” He smiled.

She returned the smile. “Of course. Jeremy!” She could see his father’s likeness in the nose, and the slight curve in his lips. She definitely saw her own reflection in his eyes. Her heart was so heavy. Bringing the box of cigarettes to the scanner, she hesitated again. Jeremy was her son, and she didn’t want him to smoke. She considered suggesting that he should quit. But fear gripped her heart as she realized he might not come back to the store if it wasn’t for the cigarettes, and she would never see her son again. “That’ll be six dollars.”

After he left, she cursed herself for not having the courage to tell him who his real mother was. He obviously knew he was adopted, having white parents, while being Korean. Perhaps he was happy with the family he already had, and would hate her for giving him up. Perhaps he would see her weakness, and the sorrow that scarred her heart all these years.

He came by every few days for the next few weeks. Sometimes he would chat for a few minutes, other times he was in a rush to get back to work. Sometimes it was the tuna sandwich, sometimes it was a soda, but usually he got a box of cigarettes. She made sure to keep her cigarettes stocked. She felt even more guilt, selling him this cancer just to see him again. A mother’s love was a confusing one, a treacherous love.

The more they talked, the more she learned about him. He had just gotten a new job in the area, in one of the offices. She told him how she was born about a decade after the Korean war, but her family had still been devastated by it. They wanted to follow the American soldiers back to the United States. They finally did when she was two years old. She told stories that she had always wanted to tell her son, and he listened with intrigue, discovering a history that felt so exotic, yet familiar.

One day, she worked up the courage to ask him if he could have coffee with her some time. She wanted to talk to him some more. She told him that he reminded her of her own son, who she wasn’t in contact with anymore.

“Sure!” He said.
————————————
Jennifer sat at the table alone, checking her watch nervously. She was ten minutes early, but didn’t want miss the appointment. She was going to finally tell him.

Forty minutes passed. Jennifer had gotten a coffee, and it had gone cold.

In his car, Jeremy wept. His shoulders were wracked with sorrow as he sobbed. He was supposed to meet Jennifer, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t bear to see her anymore. Talking to her always made him wonder who his real mother was. For his entire life, he had always longed to meet his real mother. But this woman, Jennifer, made him feel like a son again. He felt as though his real mother died in his heart, and he had betrayed her for Jennifer. He vowed to never speak to her again. His heart was divided, split in two, as though it could never be re-united again. He gazed into the sky, and saw himself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and his eyes burned with anguish and anger.

Conflict

For some time now, I’ve been thinking of short story ideas. Ideas fill my mind, and I see thematic elements everywhere I go. Fate is a narrative I’ve interwoven into my world, and I can’t help but to see my own life through the lenses of an author.

But a good author knows how to craft conflict.

I realized today that my stories have all lacked one thing, that is conflict. I’ve been so keen on avoiding conflicts my whole life that I am utterly unfamiliar with them. But only after the greatest tragedy can the greatest catharsis be found. Conflict is what drives a man. Conflict is the gas in the devil’s Cadillac. It’s Kurt Kobain’s last shotgun shell. Conflict colors our world, and shatters our complacency.

So many of my stories withered without conflict. Stories that sprang up, and under the dry winds of certain demise, they died.

I have a new idea for a short story. It’s based on a sentiment I’ve harbored for a very long time. But these characters were meant to be heroes, innocent people. I can’t bear to bring conflict into their world. Perhaps the reason I have such difficulty with crafting conflict for fictional characters is because I see my own reflection in each character I create, whether good or evil.

But in the end, to be an author, to be the god of this literary world you create and narrate, you must be objective. You must be cold, and harsh, like winter winds or summer heat. To be a writer, you have to be cold at heart, because if you don’t burden a character with hardships and conflict, then they will never come to life. They will always be a mute monologue, or a stillborn sentiment. Justice is not for the narrator to impose, but for the mice and men within the pages to find and establish. .

Some have said that good people face difficulties in life because they are good, and that they know how to overcome it.

Bullshit. Good people face difficulties because bad people do too.

Because in the end, the tales of mice and men are the only tales worth telling.

The Jungle

A very peculiar feeling crept into my heart when I was in the jungle. It was a quiet sensation, a slow dawning revelation of sorts, but it reached a crescendo that left my ears ringing and my heart aching. Everywhere I looked, I saw lush plants with leaves that could swallow a child, and massive branches that overshadowed the people walking beneath them. Yet these majestic plants remained perfectly still in a strangely serene way, completely unaware of their own greatness. Nature was so vibrant there, so aggressively resilient, that the humid air seemed to throb with the pulsing heartbeat of life itself. I was in a rural region of Palawan, one of the larger and more underdeveloped islands of the Philippines. Traces of humanity surrounded me in this jungle; in the piles of burnt garbage, the huts hidden in the dense foliage, or even the narrow dirt roads they paved, in an attempt to claim this earth and wrestle its ownership away from Mother Nature. What was truly beautiful, and fearsome, was that Nature claimed the land back in a violent way. Vines crept through the walls of the huts, and rust imposed itself like a plague upon every man made surface. Grass and brush trespassed upon the dirt roads, taking land like an army sweeping across the map. All throughout the jungle, animals hid in the tree line, whooping, screeching, and chirping with a united battle cry. Yet, in this subtle war, I felt as though I was in the presence of a sacred place, where man was meant to be. The humid air, though uncomfortable and oppressive, felt like the breath of a creator, standing close enough to immerse me in his exhale. The jungle; this is where man and nature came face to face, at the frontier of chaos and life, and conceded to a melancholy surrender for the sake of existence.

The people here fought against Nature with shovels and axes, plowing and chopping through the jungle. But Nature fought back with malaria and infections. The people who lived in or near the jungle were devastatingly poor and suffered from every possible pain, from diseases to poverty and violence. They found home in an amalgamation of tin sheets, dead branches, and leftover trash that they collected to build a community. Here was the forgotten people, left to scrape their existence out of the garbage produced by Man’s crusade for civilization.

I watched the dense foliage melt into garbage homes through the window of our passenger van as we drove out of the jungle. The car tilted fiercely from side to side, leaping in and out of potholes in the dirt road. Our plan was to pass out some food and make contact with the locals. Looking out the back of the vehicle, I saw the other van loaded with the rest of our group and supplies rattling along, trying to keep up. We were a rag-tag group of American teenagers, out on a mission to bring medicine and supplies to the rural tribes on the other side of the world. The air inside the van reeked of sweat, and everyone stared directly ahead in a solemn silence. We could have carried on a conversation, but our exhaustion and the roaring engine kept dialog at a minimum.

Children began to appear in the streets. They ran alongside our vans, some yelling, and some laughing. The mothers gripped their infants to their chest tightly and with wary eyes, watched our vans pass by. We stopped at the center of their village, where they had a concrete basketball court that would be complete if only it had nets and rims. A church and a shop were the only buildings of prominence here, as if to make a bold statement about the endeavors of man. But even the pinnacles of religion and commerce were barely noticeable in the sprawl of run down shacks. We worked quickly to unload the van. We had to set up the sound equipment to play music and make announcements to draw people out from their homes. As we labored, I noticed several burly men standing nearby, with matching black cargo pants, boots, face masks, sunglasses, and dark caps. Leaning over, I asked our translator about them. He told me that they were sent here for security, to keep us safe, by the governor of the province when we had reported our itinerary. The men stood silently, staring at the masses of bare-footed children gathering around us. It made sense, with the recent news of religious extremist groups in the area kidnapping foreigners for hostage. Black batons hung from their belts like skeletons on a noose. I continued my work.

A massive crowd of people had already gathered. They seeped out from between the shacks in curious lines. They stood back, whispering to each other. We began to play some songs over the loudspeakers to keep the crowd entertained as it grew in size. Our translator took the microphone and began beckoning the families to bring the children out to get food and supplies, telling them that we would only serve them based on whoever arrived first. The children were at the front of the crowd, pushing their way through between people’s knees and hips, being bumped and shoved, until they broke through into the light to watch these strangers with awe. The teenagers stood behind the children, trying to keep watch over their little brother or sister in the front, pretending not to be interested. However, their mask of apathy wore thin as they gawked at us, intrigued by what we had to offer. They stood with their shoulders slouched back, arms folded, carrying the heavy burden of adolescent pride. Yet their clothes were tattered donations from other humanitarian groups that had come through before us, as was evident from the outdated American brands and styles imprinted on their shirts. There were scarcely any men in the crowd. The translator tells us that most of them are probably at work, or trying to find some way to get money. I knew nothing more, and could only wonder about the quiet desperation that drives these men of poverty. How do they resign themselves at the end of another day without work, money, or food? When facing the madness of poverty, how do they retain composure, and with barren silence, agree to another day? I saw one man come out from a shack. He wore a tight lipped grimace as he glanced towards us for a moment, as if to consider something, then turned and ventured into the alleyway. Time passed, as did my thoughts, under these gradually darkening skies.

I felt a raindrop land on my arm. Night had fallen rapidly, and just on the horizon, ominous storm clouds loomed, chasing the sun out of the sky. We hastily scrambled to pack all the electrical equipment back into the vans. As we regrouped for a quick briefing, the food arrived. While we had been keeping the crowd entertained, several members of our group drove into the city to buy food for the people. They purchased two hundred hamburgers, fries, and drinks. This was all we could afford. Our funds had grown limited, and this amount had to be spread around a crowd of well over four hundred. We were instructed to give each individual one item only, one cheeseburger, one pouch of fries, or one drink. Their church would be cooking to feed the remaining people without food.

The light drizzle quickly escalated to a downpour, so heavy that I feared I would drown if I gasped hard enough. We realized this area had no lights when the sun disappeared, leaving us in the shadow of the night. Someone switched on the headlights of our vans. Pale golden beams cut through the darkness and rain. We suddenly saw the wall of hungry faces. A horde of eyes drilling into us. Everyone in our group loaded their arms with as many burgers as they could carry, and went to meet the crowd.

The front of the crowd broke like the heavens did to unleash this rain. The instant I stepped out to the crowd, I was surrounded. Cries and screams pummeled my ears, an unforgiving sound that chilled my heart, even in the midst of this tropical heat. Hands reached out for me from all sides, tugging at my shirt, clawing at my arm. Mothers held up their infants, and with pleading eyes begged for double servings. Girls wept as they pointed at their homes, repeating the Tagalog word for ‘little brother’. I felt a sharp sorrow as I had to tell them I could only give them one serving each, and denied the sad, starving faces. Crying. Screaming. The rain cascaded over our faces, making the act of speaking or breathing difficult, and turned the ground into a vast mud puddle. One young child pushed his way to the front in eagerness. As the boy’s hand shot out towards me, a young man lashed out, slapping the boy’s hand away and shoving him into the mud. The little boy’s face disappeared into the trampling feet. I screamed out to overcome the crowd, rain, and thunder. I couldn’t speak their language, but my eyes made contact with that young man and cursed him with such fury that he silently withdrew from the crowd, abandoning his hope for food. Pulling the little boy up, I pressed a burger into his hand and told him to run, pointing at the church. He nodded and ran for safety. Several other boys tried reaching under my arms to snatch some food without me noticing. I watched several more children vanish under the infinitely shifting sea of faces, their morbid desperation stabbed at my heart. I made several trips from the van to the crowd. By the end, they had all swarmed to the van, threatening to smash through windows just to get a small bite of food. The masked men positioned themselves at the corners of the van, shouting orders that were ignored.

Ten minutes later, the food was gone. I had gone back out to the crowd, trying to lead some of the people away from the van. I gave the final burger to a frail, skinny mother who nodded to me gratefully. The disappointment reverberated in a violent motion at the news that there was no food left. Several locals sprinted to the van, hoping that someone else was still passing out food. Others turned their anger on each other, blaming the person next to them for their hunger and lost opportunity. I saw several fists fly; some of the older boys began to hit the children. I saw at that moment, that their hunger was not simply of the body, but of their soul. Their lives were endless cycles of deprivation, and here, in the darkness, rain, and mud, they danced a futile number with Misery and Anguish.

As the crowd around me crumbled away in frustration, I saw another little boy, no older than three years old, sitting in the mud, crying. He must have been one of the faces that fell trying to push to the front. Tears ran down his face, mixing with the rain, and when he saw who I was, he reached his hands out with the profound expectation that only a child could bear. He wanted food. His eyes spoke to me as his lips tried forming words between sobs. I motioned with my empty hands to show him I had nothing left. He rubbed his eyes furiously, continuing to bawl. I became aware of the world I was in. This child had not yet ceded to the quiet desperation that men live in. The quiet desperation of men who assent to the barrenness of this life, and no longer ask for anything from each day. The desperation of men who have seen this world for too long, and have surrendered all dreams. I felt solely responsible for his cries. How long had it been since this child had eaten? How many days has it been since he had smelled warm food? My eyes searched all around me. No mother came forward to claim this boy, no brothers or sisters came to chide him for getting lost. He was abandoned. I grasped at a passing stranger’s shoulder, and pointed to this boy, motioning to ask where he lived or who was taking care of him. The stranger simply shrugged and walked away.

The darkness swirled, faces passed me, cries echoed. I didn’t know what to do with this boy that had been placed before me. My group had already climbed back into the vans, about to leave the village. This boy was alone. I held him, facing the gaping darkness of the ghetto; the black alleyways staring at me like demonic eyes, the unrecognizable faces of the desperate passing back and forth listlessly, and a deep desolation that pervaded the entire cesspool. I had to find food for this boy. Kneeling down to pick him up, I ran with him to the church. An old woman stood hunched over an empty pot behind rows of empty pews. The pots were encrusted with food that had just been devoured by the people. The food they prepared had been clearly insufficient as well. Standing at the door, I motioned to ask her for food to feed the boy. She pointed at the empty pot, shaking her head with a sorrowful glance to indicate that she had nothing else. The boy cried even harder. I squeezed my eyes shut to restrain my own tears. The rain threatened to drown us where we stood.

In that moment, I was completely lost.

Being lost is a very peculiar sensation as well. Perhaps that is the feeling I get whenever I am in the jungle. To be lost is to realize how insignificant you are, and how significant everything around you is. I was lost in the jungle of humanity, where the tyranny of desperation reigned like a feral king. It is a very pure form of existence, to be lost, but at that very moment, in the twinkling of an eye, you find liberation. For only when you become lost, do you see the things that you have never before seen. I saw that night; a certain desperation in the heart of man. There exists a dark desperation that reduces men to creatures, beasts of poverty. And as I struggled to understand this face of man, I wondered if it was the face of the new man, or the old. Is this debased creature a product of Nature or of Man? Regardless, this beast was rejected by both and plunged into weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

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