Every year, the Boy Scouts of America throw a delightful weeklong festival called Jamboree. Scouts from all over the nation gather and attend workshop stations to earn merit badges. I first heard of it when I was 8; by the time I turned 11, it was painfully clear that the only summer camp my family could afford was New Jersey’s version of Jamboree. Instead of camping next to scouts from Hawaii and New Mexico, we got boys from Camden and Paterson. I was not looking forward to it. I hated being a Boy Scout. Also, there would be other Asians there, possibly other Korean-Americans. My father, brother and I were from an all-white town, and I enjoyed the small thrill of being exotic.
Our father stressed acting white. Had we settled elsewhere, this could have worked out beautifully; I picture us sitting in wicker lawn chairs, sipping umbrella drinks as our friends cheer Secretariat to victory. But we’d emigrated from South Korea to a small town near Trenton and our father took a job in a cannery. There, being white meant country music and sports. For my brother Tommy, this meant football. This was fine with him because it combined his two favorite things: hitting people and being rewarded. I joined the Boy Scouts because I enjoyed being away from my brother.
And my father. His coworkers nicknamed him “Overtime” and mostly he just sat and stared at the television. When he was home. Late at night, he flickered in the dull glow of infomercials — that’s my only real memory of him from the time. After reading Animal Farm in school, I started calling him “Boxer,” after the industrious horse. Tommy and I called him that until we graduated from high school. He died a few months later, and then it wasn’t as funny.
Boy Scout camp. My underwear and T-shirts were neatly folded in my pack; as we ate breakfast and waited for our father to finish packing the van, my brother sat at the table pretending to read the newspaper and probably said something like, “Have fun at Girl Scout camp.” I probably called him a bastard and he probably attacked me. He was stronger, 3 years older, and I was fat; if you’re male and have a brother, you know what this means. At that age, he liked to throw me to the ground, take off one of his socks and wrap it around my head, trying to tie it in a knot. This may have happened that morning.
“Boy, Boxer’s shuuure gonna miss you, Gayson. Your asthma and your bedwetting.”
I told him it was Jason, as he well knew, and added, “I’ll see you in hell, Tommy.” I said this a lot when I was 11.
It was a 3-hour drive to the camp. My friends Mike and Clay were in the back of my father’s van with me. There was another kid with us, Jonathan. He was new, so of course we only talked to him when the Scoutmaster made us. I remember he played a video game. This was before cartridges and 3-D; back then, a video game consisted of a plastic case, a motor and a scrolling plastic sheet. It made an annoying whir like a camera rewinding, but the van mostly drowned it out. I was too cool to acknowledge my dad, too cool to think of anything else once Clay told me about the Rifle Shooting merit badge. This was the only merit badge station we cared about. Of course, we also had to go to Rabbit Raising and Leatherwork stations, but none of them compared. “Twenty-two calibers,” Clay said. Bolt action, motherfuckers.
For those who have never fired a gun, I’m not sure I can explain the attraction. It’s not a rush of power, it doesn’t make you feel like a god. It’s not about violence or power; it’s about the light smell of oil when you work the bolt to chamber a round. The smooth wood stock nudging you in the shoulder after each shot, a crisp report of cause and effect. After a few hundred rounds, there’s this odd peaceful feeling as the world shrinks so it’s just you, the target, the smoke and the promise of a bullseye.
They taught us gun safety, of course — I think that was actually the point of the merit badge. And, of course, it was supervised, on a gun range far away from camp. But we eventually got to shoot. A .22-caliber round could fit inside most pen caps, but they were rockets to us. Bolt action rifles, as I said, American made, and if I remember correctly, you loaded seven rounds in a magazine, pulled the bolt and fired downrange at a paper target. We were like little soldiers with our beige uniforms and rifles. When we shot, we leaned behind a sort of wooden shelf at the shooting range and beside us were small dividers which held a coffee can full of ammo. Coffee cans — I’ll never forget the heft of a tin can brimming with death.
The sixth and final day of camp, there was water in the tents from an overnight rain and our packs were mildewing. The novelty had worn off especially for the city kids, but we were all tired of eating hot dogs and campfire eggs off tinfoil. We were all picturing our homes that day.
Jonathan, the little fucker playing video games on the drive to camp, was, of course, in my troop and in my noon Rifle Shooting merit badge class. On the last day of camp, he stole a handful of bullets from the shooting range. Little .22-caliber shells, I bet they rattled pleasantly in his beige shorts pockets. No one knows why he did that and no one knows why later that night he walked up to our campfire and tossed them in. If there’s ever a campfire with young boys around it, someone’s always throwing something into the flames. Nobody noticed the bullets. At first.
Here I have to pause to explain, in general terms, how a .22-caliber round works. After the trigger is pulled, a striking pin hits the flat bottom of the cartridge. This ignites the gunpowder; the explosion propels the lead slug down the barrel. But when you throw a round into a fire, it settles, sits calmly and explodes. The heat warps the lead, which breaks into fragments and becomes shrapnel when the powder ignites.
So there I was, sitting by the campfire, sipping orange astronaut Tang from an aluminum canteen and singing, “If I Had A Hammer.” Popcorn! I looked up from my little spiral-bound songbook to be greeted by molten shards of lead. The world shut off like an old TV and then I was in the hospital. “They look like teeth,” my father said, looking up at the glowing x-ray of my skull. Little canines — doctors are still afraid to remove them.
I don’t know what happened to Jonathan, if charges were filed or anything. Occasionally, I consider looking it up, but nothing comes of it. I suppose it’s because I know the answers I want can’t be found in newspapers. Sometimes, when I’m fighting though another week-long migraine or waiting in some therapist’s office, I wonder why Jonathan did it. What did he want? As if any motive could be distilled to a single sentence. Maybe it was like a science experiment, an attempt to bypass that clumsy delivery system of wood and metal, get right to the result. I imagine him digging his fingers into the can, feeling all that ribbed lead. All the possibilities, different paths they could take. Most of the time I can forgive him.
And this concludes the most interesting chapter of my biography. I used it on prospective friends in high school and later in bars. “Really? You drank 10 beers at your Alpha Sigma Pi party last night? Let me tell you about the bullet lodged in my brain. …” But nowadays, I rarely talk about the bullet. I got tired of people looking for the scars (only one’s visible, a tiny white spot on my forehead near the hairline). I shrunk when I told it — became the story — and people tired of it. Also, buried in adulthood was the newfound realization of my own mortality. The bullet in my cerebral cortex was a prophecy of decline and madness, the scar a tiny memento mori. I stopped talking about the bullet, but how could one not obsess over it?
With all this talk of bars and bullets, you may have forgotten my ethnicity. There was a time I’d forgotten it myself and that’s what the second part of this story is about. My father was born in South Korea, a charming nation stalwartly facing nuclear annihilation. Kim Jong Il, missiles — you know the story. It’s something they don’t think about it until it flares up, one relative told me at my father’s wake. It’s like loss, an entire nation gone at the end of the war. The North severed at the 38th parallel, it returns unexpectedly now and then like the pain of a phantom limb. South Korea, my South Korea, felt much the same when it returned to me. Between us: a bullet, an ocean, and the mazy passage of time, but sooner or later, everything returns.
At his father’s funeral, Bruce Lee — the Bruce Lee — crawled screaming on his hands and knees. This was the custom: to beg forgiveness, penance for being absent when his father died. Bruce Lee was 25 then.
At 22, I’d done my share of screaming and crawling and now, armed with a bachelor’s degree in communications and $40,000 in debt, I’d been released into the world. My brother Tommy and I hadn’t spoken since our father’s memorial service. “I’m surprised you made it this far,” he told me in the parking lot afterwards. My therapist and I discussed this incident for weeks and finally decided to pretend I didn’t have a brother. A trial period, it lasted four years. But a month after graduating from college, I called him.
“Tommy,” I said.
“Who is this?” he said. I hung up and took a handful of pills.
This continued for weeks, and one Friday evening he showed up at my apartment. I was living in Newark at the time, working as a receptionist for a law firm. The buzzer rang, I looked out my window, and there he was, staring at the neighbors across the street and probably wondering if all of them had guns tucked in their waistbands. They did. I lived on the third floor and appeared so quickly it startled him.
Time had been generous. I didn’t know where he’d been, but he hadn’t spent the past four years on a couch drinking vodka and procrastinating. He was tall and thick like our father — his face filled out in that broad Korean way. His hair was longer, pulled back in a ponytail. It reminded me of how some Native American men wear theirs. He was wearing all black: leather jacket, black jeans, and some wise-ass sunglasses.
“You’re mocking me,” I didn’t say, looking at his clothes.
“You’re a mess,” he didn’t say, and I silently thanked him for that. My apartment was in the broken glass section of town and he seemed eager to go inside, become less of a target.
“I’ve, uh, been … ” I stumbled over the words for a moment. I’ve been looking. … We hugged awkwardly.
“You look like shit,” he said. I closed the door to the apartment building and walked over to his car, an orange Dodge Dart. I opened the door to the passenger side. He got in the driver’s seat and the gang members across the street stood up and started moving towards us.
“Drive,” I said, leaning back against the leather headrest. Just drive. When he protested, I said I had something to show him. It was that kind of trip — something would happen and we’d figure out the logic afterward.
“What are we doing here?” Tommy said. I’d driven the last few hours, and we ended up spending the night at a bed and breakfast in Connecticut. I was wearing khakis and a polo shirt. Tommy was wearing an undershirt and a pair of nylon shorts he’d found in his car. We were downstairs sitting around a table and the elderly white couples were trying not to stare.
“Delighted to have you. Don’t get many of you around here,” they didn’t say, sipping their coffee.
“Gas. Do you know how much it costs?” Tommy said.
“We’re watching the leaves turn,” I said, mostly to the five or six people sitting at the table.
“It’s August,” he said. The manager brought our food: Tommy had scrambled eggs on toast, and I had the eggs benedict. I finished eating and told the manager she was an exquisite cook. They cleared the plates, but no one left the table.
“You haven’t answered my question,” Tommy said.
“Think about this: people with bullets in their heads usually have something in common,” I said, drawing out the first few words.
"Death,” Tommy said. The room fell silent.
"Living ones, though. Think about it. Some act of violence, some unspeakable tragedy. They’re survivors. Capital S. Survivors.”
"Throwing bullets in a fire isn’t — ?”
"That was chance. Not directed specifically at me. Not cocked and aimed, not get on your knees, fool, or I’ll — ”
"Why are we here?” Tommy said. I pulled the Identity Chart from my wallet, written on a piece of small notebook paper. It was something my therapist and I had made. I held it up. “Survivors have people they can go to. Support groups. People like them. What did you notice about my neighborhood?”
"Your ‘hood? Frankly, I’m surprised … ” he said gleefully, then stopped. Surprised you made it this far. I put the chart back in my pocket. Someone coughed. We finished our coffee and left.
Drive. We were somewhere in southern Connecticut, slowly making our way back to New Jersey. Tommy had been driving for a few hours, and it was about 2 o’clock. “There’s nothing in Maine, trust me,” he said.
"Lobsters,” I said.
"Speaking of which, I choose where we eat lunch. You picked that gay hotel,” he said.
"Gay? Was the bed and breakfast gay? I didn’t know that — ”
"Here,” he said, slowing as we passed a Korean restaurant at the edge of a strip mall. He turned the car around and pulled up next to it. It looked expensive.
"How much money you got?” he asked me.
"Check the door. Do they take cards?”
"Yeah,” he said, squinting at the door.
"I kind of wanted spaghetti.”
"That’s interesting,” he said, getting out and walking toward the restaurant.
The restaurant’s lobby had a large fish tank and a bulletin board filled with pamphlets written in Korean: straight lines and circles, blunt and austere compared to China’s pictograms or the angular complexity of Japan’s four alphabets.
Inside, everything was earth-toned. It was that strange hour when everyone was just leaving and the hostess smiled to see us. For the first time in the trip, Tommy seemed at ease, joking with the hostess as she led us to our table. She pointed at the paintings and sculptures as if we were touring a condo we’d just bought. Finally, she seated us in the back of the restaurant in what seemed like a reserved section, surrounded by a carved wooden railing. Our table was thick, dark cherry with white placemats. It glowed pleasantly in the track lights.
I could only read half the menu. Our uncles told us stories and taught us the language, but I shed Korea like a coat. Friends and teachers draped their hopes and expectations on me, their minor miracle boy. Thus shelled, I didn’t need anything else: not when it was sunny out, not when there was so much to buy. Korea. “Too much sadness,” my father said when I asked why we moved. My mother had passed away, and he’d lived to see his country divided. In America, he could lose himself in the jetstream of a new culture. And here, Tommy thought he’d inherited the most from our father.
The waitress said a few things to me in their language, but Tommy intercepted, folding the words back into their conversation. He was covering for me. I sat politely and tried to smile. It must have looked hideous. I pointed to something on the menu, and she nodded. From the look she gave me (mostly pity), I could tell my brother had excused me either as retarded or as a deaf-mute.
"You think you’re doing me a favor,” I said after she left.
"I think I’m doing me a favor,” he said. I’d kept a few insulting phrases from our mother tongue and we traded those for awhile. I was about to switch to English when the restaurant’s owner approached us. Tommy later said this happened to him all the time at Korean restaurants. The owner comes up and asks if you’re Korean. I don’t know why. Maybe you win a prize or something. The owner was older, silver hair at the temples.
"Are you Korean?” he said to me, although it sounded like “Ah. You Korean.”
"No,” I said. He gave me a strange look, trying to reconcile my response with my face.
"Oh,” he said. He looked around at the restaurant, at the paintings as if he’d never seen them before. Then he decided he had other work to do and left. The whole exchange lasted maybe ten seconds.
“Because I’m not,” I said to Tommy. I reached into my pocket for the aegis of the Identity Chart but hesitated when I saw his expression. While we were arguing about something on the menu, he’d picked up a butter knife (left for white patrons) and waved it around as he called me an effeminate, mouth-breathing dogfucker in Hangungmal. But as the owner walked away, the look on my brother’s face — I’ve never seen anger like it.
Several incidents came to mind, but I’ll only share one. When I was 10, he tried to decapitate me: tied a length of rope around my neck while I was asleep, tied the other end around a doorknob, got a running start and kicked the door shut. He’d previously removed a tooth in the same fashion, and the sheer force ripped me from the bed and onto the floor. Snot and tears, I looked up and saw him, arms folded as he disapprovingly observed my survival. For some reason, he was wearing only underwear: bright white, and from a strange cinematic angle, I pulled at my neck and watched him stare at me. A few days later, I returned the favor by pushing over a bookshelf aimed at his head while he was doing push-ups in the living room. Three more inches and I would have had it. But these were everyday experiments, playful in their violence. We put thought into them, yes, but never thought much about them.
In the restaurant, though, there was something I’d never seen in my brother before: genuine malice, tight and seething. My hands were always shaking, but I could usually control it. I put them on my lap. When Dylan went electric, the guy shouting “Judas” didn’t really mean it. Tommy meant it; the entire restaurant steeped in the ugliness. Not speaking the language was one thing, but it was unthinkable to deny my heritage in this place, here, with our homeland’s glory spread all around us by our generous elders. I was afraid he was actually going to drive that knife into my throat. Blood spurting slow motion in a chrysanthemum bloom. He stood up slowly and walked past me — everything inside me contracted.
“You’re paying for this,” he didn’t say. He walked through the restaurant, still holding the knife, and out the door.
Drive. “We’re almost there,” I said. We’d passed Saturday with small talk, and now it was Sunday morning. I had to go back to my job in less than 24 hours. Now was the time, mostly because I figured he couldn’t attack me and drive at the same time. I pulled out the Identity Chart, unfolding it on the dashboard. I explained to him that my therapist and I had collaborated on it, but it was mostly my idea. “This will require theory,” I said.
“Oh my God,” Tommy said.
"Weininger studied gender. Jewish fellow, sort of.”
"What does that mean, sort of?”
"He renounced being Jewish.” Tommy didn’t say anything. Didn’t have to.
"He also committed suicide at 23. But anyway, Weininger believed not in purity and labels, but rather in the beauty of continuity and spectrums."
"Please stop,” Tommy said.
"In order to heal from the trauma of adolescence and to face uncertain adulthood, I must first come to terms with my identity,” I read, quoting the mission statement at the top of the chart. “All the answers are on this scale, which will help me figure out where I fit in regarding Korean and American culture,” I said, pointing to the ladder-like drawing on the Identity Chart. “On one end, there’s pure Korean Americanness.”
"Drawn in red crayon.”
"Burgundy represents Korea. And see, I’ve listed things that are purely Korean. And see the nice color spectrum in between … ”
"Pink. Cute,” he said, looking over. He didn’t look at the chart — or at me — for the rest of the drive.
"And then Anglo-Saxon-ness, represented by this white color at the opposite end. I’d listed “Angel food cake,” “Fly fishing,” “water polo,” etc. “So I’m here,” I said, tracing a circle with my finger in the middle of the chart, “adrift in this vague ocean. … ”
Eyes on the road, he shook his head. How are we related? the look on his face said.
I said, “Look, just because you don’t understand something doesn’t … Weininger influenced Freud. He might have been flawed and his ideas controversial, but that doesn’t — ”
“Shut up. You’ve spent your entire life obsessing over — ”
“People like binaries, this or that. Black or white. Dark outlines around everything. But seriously, who’s 100 percent anything? Are you? Weininger challenged a lot — ” Tommy drove the car across the grass median, bouncing, and into opposing traffic. A pickup truck swerved out of the way, honking.
“Okay, Okay!” I said, raising my hands in surrender. He pressed down a little on the accelerator. I yelled and stuffed the Identity Chart back in my pocket. The highway wasn’t busy, but a few more cars swerved out of our way. Tommy pulled back into the correct lane.
“Have you ever tried talking to people instead of studying them? You really should!” he shouted. He was angry.
“Thanks, Oprah,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.
“Wherever we’re going … ” There was a pause which lasted about a minute. “How is this mystery place we’re driving to going to solve your whiny … whatever issues?”
“Race. And identity.”
“I don’t see how … ”
“Hence the Identity Chart,” I didn’t say. His anger calmed to irritation. I took a picture of him with my cell phone.
“Are you saying that you’ve never dealt with anything like this?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “On the way home, I’m going to tell you what I really think about all this,” he said.
A few minutes later, we turned down a dirt road. The shocks on his car weren’t very good and he had to slow down dramatically. The road became an alley when a copse of beech trees appeared on both sides. Finally, there was a gravel parking lot. Tommy pulled in next to a minivan. While we were arguing about whether we were in the right place, a man emerged from the adjacent minivan. He was a portly fellow wearing a thick blue coat, heavy lapels lined with polished brass buttons and a tri-cornered hat. He also wore some kind of leather sash from which hung a decorative sword. His pants were white and looked thick. He pulled a small snare drum from the back of his van, slid the door shut and walked down the hill, whistling.
“What the fuck?” Tommy said, each word a sentence. We got out and I walked to the end of the parking lot. It was a historic landmark, according to the sign. We were on a hill looking overlooking acres of tall Connecticut meadow. At the far end, near the forest, a broad rock wall spanned the length of the field. There was a stone path that led down to a campground, dotted with dozens of canvas tents. We watched our blue drummer make his way down toward them. It was too far away to make out any people, but we could see smoke from several campfires.
“Well?” Tommy said, making a sweeping gesture with his hand. He waited for an answer.
“Mildred told me about this. The owner. At the bed and breakfast. Her son’s into this.” See, I do talk to people. “But look. The trees, the colonials we passed on the way here. Revolutionary War re-enactors in Connecticut — these are the whitest people doing the whitest thing possible. It’s either this or line dancing night at an Elks club in Vermont.”
“Stereotypes,” Tommy said.
“This isn’t about stereotypes. It’s about purity. And look at his neat tri-cornered hat,” I said.
“So your white friends do this?” he asked.
“Where would one buy such a hat?” I said.
“Do you even have any white friends? Or any — ”
I took out the chart and smoothed it on my leg. “They read books by dead Germans, but I need more. One has to go to extremes when calibrating an Identity Chart. I’ve already got the Korean part from the restaurant — that was by accident, but it worked out beautifully. After this, we can go celebrate in a Presbyterian church, practice Hwaorang-do in a vat of kimchi.”
“I think if I punched you hard enough, it would fix everything,” Tommy said.
"The X on a map — you are here. People need to know their place in the world. Without it … everything’s this gray mush,” I said, refolding the Identity Chart and returning it to my pocket.
"But where?” he mused.
"Take enough cynical steps backwards and everything looks silly,” I said.
"I’m going to take some cynical steps away from you.” I followed him down the trail. The stone path we walked on ended in a broad field, where there stood clusters of tents. Soldiers gathered and talked, dressed in period costume. The uniforms looked hot and uncomfortable; many soldiers sat fanning themselves in the shade of their tents. There was a flagpole near the camp where a bespectacled, panting man stood under a colonial flag and lectured a group on how to lower, fold and raise the flag. I hadn’t wanted to get this close, but Tommy pushed further into the camp.
"Here we go,” he said. He walked over to a young woman in a white bonnet. She was hollow-cheeked, thin, with short blonde hair. She wore a long dress covered by an apron and tended to a cast-iron pot hanging over a small fire. Tourists? That’s what she was thinking as we approached her. But where are their cameras?
"What odd manner of dress,” she said, staring at us. She looked at our shoes for a long time. Hers looked like moccasins. “Which colony are ye from?” I don’t think she actually said “ye,” but she spoke with a strange accent, a flutter of soft vowels. Accurate for the region and time period, I suppose.
"Jersey,” Tommy said.
"Oh my. Are ye loyalists?” She regarded us with convincing suspicion.
"Tell her you’re a loyalist, Jay,” Tommy said to me. I ignored him. A man carrying a long musket walked over to us. Her husband. He was wearing the same thick white pants as the rest of the soldiers, but instead of a coat, he wore a white collared shirt and brown vest. He greeted us warmly, shook our hands. He introduced himself as Bucky (he was missing both front teeth) and the cook, his wife Virginia. The beef stew smelled wonderful, thick. The camp was a maze of smells: food bubbling in cast iron, the lightness of smoke. Somewhere, I could smell the acrid scent of gunpowder in the wind. I told Bucky we were doing a report for a class project. On period weaponry.
"Oh!” he said. “Well you’ll want to see this.” He picked up his gun and held it in front of him. I took a picture with my cell phone. “Like hefting a fencepost,” he said, resting it on his shoulder like a sentry. “This is a Brown Bess, carried over from Great Britain. Tower Armory, .75-caliber muzzleloader.”
"Seventy-five,” I said, impressed. Bucky nodded.
"Add courage and ye have a revolution,” Virginia said.
"Muzzleloader, meaning one loads from the end of the barrel.” He sat down on a wooden camp chair and held the gun on his lap. Virginia brought him a canvas bag and he pulled out a tube of paper the size of a shotgun shell. “Little known fact: a great number of patriots were missing their front teeth. Because — ” he handed the tube to his wife, who stuck it in the side of her mouth and bit off the end.
"The fastest way is with the incisors,” Virginia said.
"Can’t whistle anymore,” Bucky said. He pointed the musket at the ground. “This here is the flint lock.” He poured a little black powder from the tube into a hammerlike contraption above the trigger (on a bolt-action rifle, this is where the bolt would be). He gave a long description about how the firing mechanism worked, using the words “frizzen,” “pan” and “ignite.”
"You’re not writing this down?” Virginia said.
"My cell phone’s recording everything,” I lied.
"They’re good boys.” Bucky tilted the barrel up — the gun in its entirety was about 5 feet tall, made of dark, stained walnut. He poured the rest of the powder into the barrel and pushed the paper cartridge down into the barrel with a ramrod. “Normally, one would include a lead ball with the cartridge, but we’re not that dedicated in our re-enacting.”
"Not like the Civil War re-enactors,” Virginia chirped. Yes, chirped. This was some kind of inside joke.
"What is the — ” I was about to ask why they did this — what was their motivation? — when a bell rang out. Bucky and his wife looked towards a church near the edge of the woods. Virginia gathered not one, but three camp chairs and Bucky set the gun across them.
"It’s 5. Time for the safety meeting. Then we’ll have some demonstrations,” he said.
"So … we’ll go back to the car,” Tommy said.
"I’ll gladly trade you some stew to keep the fire going,” Bucky said. Otherwise he had to put it out. Safety. Starting a fire with flint and tinder was not easy, he told us.
I promised to keep the fire going. Bucky looked at his gun, but we made sure not to look at it. “They’re good boys,” he said as he walked his wife through the campground. They met up with others and filed into the church.
"What the fuck,” Tommy said after they were gone.
"Bucky and Virginia obviously don’t have kids,” I said, picking up the musket. It was surprisingly heavy, almost as tall as I was. It was a beautiful weapon, the first gun I’d held in over a decade. I missed the feel, the way one cradles such a weapon. I knew what had to be done the moment I saw it, but I couldn’t speak it until now.
"I want you to shoot me,” I said. I handed the gun to Tommy, suddenly feeling helpless without it. It didn’t take much for him to point it at me. The barrel was really wide; the lead shot must have been bigger than a marble.
"Wait,” he said. He glanced at the campground to see if anyone had remained. The bronze-colored metal below the flintlock and the metal of the barrel glowed dully as we walked down the field and into the shade.
"Man, this thing is heavy,” Tommy said.
"So, wait … ” I moved 10 feet away from him, then 15.
"And you’re sure this doesn’t have a bullet in it?”
"They shoot lead balls, not bullets. And no, he only loaded a blank.”
"Because they were talking about loading these with real bullets,” he said. I’d been watching carefully, I told him. Obviously, it was loaded with a blank. This debate went on for awhile.
"Wait, why am I doing this?” Tommy said.
"This is going to solve everything. I didn’t even plan this, but it’s so perfect. People with bullets in their heads, remember that conversation? I have effect — ” I pointed to the shrapnel in my head — “but not cause. This … musket is cause. Oh my God, this is perfect.”
"What?” Tommy said.
"It’s like Chekhov’s rifle.” According to Chekhov, if act one of a play shows a rifle hanging on a wall, it must be fired by the end. Cause and effect, foreshadowing, et cetera. “I’m like that story. It must be fired,” I declared. I started to explain Chekhov, but Tommy sighed and took out the rubber band that kept his hair in a ponytail. He lifted the gun, sort of shook his head to adjust his hair and pointed the gun at my face. “If this is what you want,” he said.
"Wait,” I said, taking a few steps backwards.
"I thought so,” he said.
"Ready?” Tommy said. I could feel the air stir, a breeze from the forest. I spread my arms and took a deep breath. I was ready.
"We’re going to prison for this. Or, at least I am. You’ll probably be dead.”
"If this doesn’t happen, I will never have this chance. Ever. Again. Courage.”
"God damn it.”
He said something I didn’t understand.
“Go,” I said. He seemed about to protest when he looked at something over my shoulder. I thought it was a joke, so I didn’t look.
"I love you,” he said and pulled the trigger.
A man wrapped in smoke, that’s the main thing I remember. I’d fallen, knocked backwards by the rush of everything. The shot’s deep thunder still echoed off the hills, inside my skull. The smell of gunpowder: it felt like I’d been inside the explosion. On the ground beside me were flaming ribbons of paper. I love you. Everything echoed.
"Do you feel reborn?” Tommy yelled as if I were really far away.
I don’t know,” I said, but no sound came out. Everything looked new.
Tommy was shouting something. Had been for who knows how long. “Run! You fucker!” I looked over my shoulder. Apparently, the safety meeting was over and everyone had been calmly exiting the church — until they heard the shot. Now, torches and pitchforks, they were running down the hill. Towards us. “Get up!”
I had a perfectly reasonable explanation, and we had friends in the group. Surely they would understand. Surely I would be able to explain. With this knowledge, I somehow managed to stand and then followed my best judgment: I ran the fuck away, up the hill toward the car.
Tommy and I aren’t speaking now (for the record, this is entirely his fault), but I can picture myself someday calling him and hanging up. You make progress with identity one day at a time. And I am making progress: I destroyed the Identity Chart in a ceremony with my therapist, sent it burning down the Delaware on a raft made of popsicle sticks. It was cathartic.
But, when I remember that weekend, I think it’s funny, the immovable objects we carry and what can knock them loose in the most epic of moments. And as I picture my brother moments before our getaway, running up the hillside and holding that awkward musket aloft, I think: it’s funny, the things you hold on to.
This piece was published as part of the November Adoptee Literature Folio. To see other works from the folio, please visit the table of contents here.
Eddie H. Ahn's work can be viewed on instagram @ehacomics. In addition to four solo art shows in San Francisco, CA, Eddie has been recognized as a cartoonist-in-residence by the Charles M. Schulz Museum and a featured artist by Kearny Street Workshop. He is also the writer and illustrator of "Sidewalk Empire," a serialized comic strip previously published by Hyphen Magazine, and "Wish the World."