I’m shocked to see you on TV. You’ve changed. Your hair is cut short and you’re wearing a suit, asking if I’ve been hurt in a car accident. You ask with such genuine concern. The phone number for the law firm of Davis and Lee appears at the bottom of the screen, and for a moment I think to call it — remember me? Once, you pointed a gun at my head. I thought it was the end.
After seeing your commercial, I can’t sleep.
The next morning, I look up the address of your law firm.
Eight years ago, I was at a house in the suburbs. Inside there was no furniture, just two blackjack tables. I was riding high, up a thousand bucks or so, and it stayed that way for a couple of hours. The dealer kept looking at me funny, as if he couldn’t figure something out. Maybe he thought I was Latino and not Asian, like the other players. I was sure the dealer wanted me to lose.
If so, he got his wish. In 20 minutes, I went from being up a thousand to my last $50 bet. The next hand was dealt to the five players, including me, at the table. Then the dealer turned over his two cards, which added up to 15. According to the odds, he should’ve busted. The odds were on our side. But then he turned over the next card. A six.
You materialized out of a dark corner, like some B-movie vampire. You took me outside, where at first, we were almost friends. You gave me a cigarette. But then, a few minutes later, one of your heavies knocked the cigarette out of my mouth with a fist. As I tried to get up, he kicked me in the ribs. I rolled over onto my back, the pain pulsing through my body. You loomed over me, long black hair hanging down. Dressed in an expensive suit, with a boyish face, you looked more like a Korean pop star than a gangster, and yet I’d never been more afraid of anyone in my life. Beyond your face was the night sky.
Outside, the Asian players were quiet, smoking in the darkness.
“You have a week,” you whispered.
When I was a kid, I fell in love with weapons and the martial arts. Bruce Lee made it okay to be half-Asian. Via the back pages of martial arts magazines, I ordered Chinese throwing stars, butterfly knives, nunchucks, a bo staff and a samurai sword. I would train with these weapons in the front yard as neighbors drove by, confused and concerned.
It’s easy to find these weapons today. With the Internet, I buy all the weapons I listed above, including a round target board which hangs on the wall above the living room couch. The board has ninjas on it. From 15 feet, I hurl knives and throwing stars. Admittedly, my aim is a work in progress. The wall around the board is full of gashes and nicks.
A week after your goons beat the shit out of me, I went to visit my grandparents. Granny and Papa entered the nursing home at the same time, both suffering from dementia. Before they were put away, Granny would leave the house and wander the neighborhood at all hours of the night. She would knock on people’s doors and accuse them of stealing her frying pan or ironing board or even her house. Meanwhile, Papa embodied the stereotype of the cranky old white man as he stood on his front lawn to yell at women, children and animals. One Sunday afternoon, he grabbed my stepmother’s hair and shook her like a rag doll, shouting a woman’s name none of us recognized. Watching it happen, I wondered if I was next.
My grandparents lived in a secure wing for “at-risk” patients. Visitors needed a security code to get in and out. That morning, a nurse named Clara was my escort. She was thin, even statuesque, and as we walked down the corridor she said with an accent I couldn’t quite place, “They gonna be so happy to see you.” The corridor smelled of piss.
Two old ladies stood outside the entrance to my grandparents’ room. One was in a wheelchair and wore a flowery pink nightgown. The other stood tall and wore a black helmet, as if she were a hockey player.
“Excuse us ladies,” Clara said as we squeezed past them.
The room was large, with a couple of hospital beds. A window looked out onto the parking lot. On the wall was my high school graduation photo. I was airbrushed and contemplative, with spiked hair and my chin resting on a fist. Granny and Papa were both moving about the room. When they turned to look at me it felt like I’d been spotted by two complete strangers, but then Papa said, “It’s Jesse Damon! Come on in!” And everything felt kind of normal. My grandmother kissed me on the cheek and Papa shook my hand. They looked the same, almost.
“Are you hungry?” Granny said.
She stopped what she was doing — cleaning the floor with an invisible mop — then moved to a different part of the room to inspect empty cabinets for food. Granny told Jimmy Boy, her Australian shepherd, to be patient; he’d get the scraps. In real life, Jimmy Boy had been dead for 10 years. While Granny put my breakfast together, Papa asked how school was going. Then he wondered aloud if I was going to college. I’d been out of college for three years.
I drive to your office in the morning, more like a brick schoolhouse than an office building. You are not the first to arrive at work. First there’s a young woman in a skirt and jacket, probably the receptionist or legal secretary. Then a guy in khakis and tucked-in shirt pulls in, a paralegal. Not a lawyer. Then a Lexus pulls up, a blond woman in a dark pantsuit with martial stride. A lawyer for sure.
Shortly thereafter, you pull into the parking lot in a black Mercedes. You are the most spectacular of the bunch. Your hair black, with no hint of gray. The suit looks expensive and tailored to your body. It makes you look like a Korean JFK.
Your face is serious, confident, even peaceful. And why not? Things have worked out. You turned your life around.
Papa was a Harley enthusiast. With his buddies, he would ride all over the country. He used to take me on Sunday rides, and I remember standing very still as he pulled tight the straps of my helmet. I would wrap my arms around his thick belly, and we would ride around town, feeling like outlaws.
Papa liked to talk about his time in the service. A signalman in the Navy, he served on the USS Auburn. During the battle of Okinawa, he kept a running tally of the Japanese civilians that committed suicide by jumping off the cliffs. They’d been told that the American invaders would rape and pillage once they came ashore. Papa showed me the old leather-bound journal where he kept his notes on the Japanese suicides. The paper was yellowed and brittle and his scrawl was hard to make out, but I could see well enough to make out one of the lines. It said: “Family of nips took a swan dive today.”
When my parents divorced, my immigrant mother traded Fort Worth for Los Angeles, which had the highest concentration of Koreans outside of Seoul. My mother was a budding entrepreneur and wanted to make it big. My father was a blue-collar redneck, a nobody, and he was fine with that. It was why my parents didn’t get along.
One day, some weeks after the divorce, Papa came by unannounced and picked me up on his Harley. We left town and rode down an old highway that seemed to never end. Finally, we came to a rock quarry that I didn’t know existed. We sat at the edge of the green water and Papa told me life was tough, but that he would always be there for me. He had never said anything like that before, and I didn’t know how to respond, so I just nodded.
After my mother moved to L.A., Granny and Papa made a sport of bashing her. Papa told us about her first attempts at learning English. My uncle, a teenager at the time, acted as a tutor but everything he told her was wrong. He held up a pencil and called it a penis. He pointed at a tree and called it a motherfucker, keeping a straight face. When my mother figured things out, she approached my uncle and gestured toward my grandparents’ backyard. She then led him outside where she punched him in the face and wrestled him to the ground. Barely a hundred pounds, my mother an Asian storm.
Papa made it clear how he felt about Korean culture. He hated the smell of kimchi. He couldn’t respect a society that ate dogs. Granny nodded at everything he said. She was never a fan of my parents being together.
The barbs made me feel like I was at war with myself. I agreed that Korean culture was weird. Most of the time I thought of myself as a white American, though looking in the mirror told a different story. Papa was like a second father to me. He had firm opinions. I wanted to be like him and I wanted his approval.
At the same time, I loved my mother and felt angry on her behalf. All these emotions fought inside me, leaving me paralyzed. I never pushed back against my grandparents, and I stopped looking at myself in the mirror.
“The gooks are a strange people,” Papa liked to say. “But me and Granny love you. You’re our little gooker.”
I expand my weapons collection. From the Internet I get a classic survival knife, something straight from Sly Stallone and 1980s Rambo. I buy a snap spring baton and practice swiping it across an imaginary someone’s knee. I buy a pair of kamas: they look like axes or scythes. Farming implements. But they are deadly.
I have never been a gun person. They’re too easy and abundant. I like weapons of skill.
My prized possession is a tanto: a short sword with a six-inch blade. It came with a scabbard, or saya, made from Japanese rosewood. The color is the deepest brown I’ve ever seen. Handmade in Japan, the tanto cost me hundreds of dollars and traditionally is part of samurai culture. During World War II, Japanese officers — full of shame with defeat on the horizon — used tantos to commit seppuku: suicide by disembowelment.
In the nursing home, I left Granny and Papa’s room and walked down the corridor. I needed a breath of fresh air.
Outside in the sunshine, I turned on my phone and found a dozen new messages from you.
Jesse, it’s you-know-who. I want my money.
I guess you’ve fallen off the face of the earth. I guess that means your debt is cancelled. Wrong, motherfucker.
Hey faggot. I want my fucking money. I’m coming to find you.
You low-life gambling piece of shit. I’m gettin’ my money or I’m takin’ my pound of flesh.
Today is my third time back to see you. While you work on legal matters, I listen to talk radio. Before lunch, a rent-a-cop coasts through the parking lot, looking my way, and I get nervous. The tanto and baton are in the glove compartment. The fake cop leaves. I spend the afternoon driving around, eating at a McDonald’s. Back at your office, at quitting time, the parking lot is empty except for your car. Again, you’re the last to leave.
As I follow you home, it’s completely dark. The commute takes less than a half hour. Your neighborhood is tranquil, upscale. Your house is dark brick and two stories. The lawn is small but tidy, with traces of summer green. The garage door is closed, and the Mercedes stays outside in the driveway. You go through the front door and do not look tired.
I stay next to the curb thinking of your life inside. You might have a wife. You might have a son or daughter or both.
Is your wife Korean?
If I rang the doorbell, what would your eyes say?
I switched off my phone again and went back inside the nursing home. In their room, Papa and Granny were napping on their beds. I sat in Granny’s recliner and dozed a little. Granny was staring at me when I woke up. She looked different, her face more gaunt. The hanging flap of skin on her neck was pink and angry-looking, like something on a lizard. There was a fuzzy dark growth high on her cheekbone. I’d somehow missed it before.
Granny’s eyes were an electric blue.
“Jesse Damon,” she said. “Come here please.”
I left the recliner and sat in a chair by the bed.
“There’s nothing more that can be done for you,” Granny whispered.
When Papa woke up, he clutched at his chest and jumped out of bed with the agility of a 20-year-old. He backed up against the wall, eyes widening. I thought he was having a heart attack. Then Papa came off the wall and with conviction pointed a trembling finger at me.
“It’s a goddam nip,” he said.
He went to the corner and his whole body was shaking. I stood up not knowing what to do with myself. I looked at Granny, but her eyes were closed. She was mumbling again.
Papa opened an invisible cabinet and pulled out an arsenal of guns, which he stockpiled against the wall. He slammed a clip into what was probably a .45. He pumped a cartridge into an invisible shotgun. Then he looked at me. He flung himself against the wall again. “You’re big for a nip!” he said.
I was crying.
I came around the bed to face him and pointed my own invisible weapon. I pretended to shoot my grandfather in the head, but he slid down the wall holding his gut. As I hurried past he said, “You got me, you dirty nip. I always knew you’d get me.”
That was the last time I saw my grandparents. Within the year, they were both dead.
After leaving the nursing home I went to my apartment. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I scrambled eggs and made toast. A knock came at the door. I could’ve refused to answer it but I didn’t. One of your heavies hit me in the face. As I held my jaw, another one threw me to the ground.
“Where’s my money, cocksucker?” you said.
I shook my head.
They put me in the backseat of a BMW X5, forcing me to lie on the floor. Your heavies used my back and legs as a footrest. When I moved an inch, they stomped me.
From the driver’s seat, you asked if I liked east Texas.
It was just past dawn with everything ashen except for a few shafts of sunlight, which came through the towering cypress trees. There was a body of water to my right, its surface covered by green scum or algae, and I saw lily pads too. The trees didn’t stop at the water’s edge. They stood out there in the water, looking thick and gray and ancient.
The white goon looked like a football player. He was maybe a couple years out of high school. My other assailant was Korean: well-fed, like an Iowa farm boy.
You wore a black trench coat that reminded me of Columbine.
In the swamp, it started to mist.
“I can get the money,” I said.
“You had a week,” you replied.
“I just need a couple more days.”
I looked across the water. There was something like Spanish moss hanging from the trees. A big white bird (an egret?) walked through the grass on the opposite shore.
“You’re going to kill me,” I said.
“What choice do I have?”
Seeing the gun, I marched in front of them. I took a few steps, pivoted and went in the opposite direction. My arms flailed.
You and your heavies laughed, as if I were putting on a show.
The gun was a 9 mm. Jet black.
I knelt in front of you, with hands clasped, begging and crying.
Then it got quiet, no more laughter: killing is a serious matter. The gun was against my forehead. There was nothing in your face. It was flat like sand. I closed my eyes and waited.
I felt hands scooping beneath my armpits, and I was lifted then carried to the water’s edge. Your heavies dunked my head as if it were a junior high prank.
Then you left me in the swamp.
I had to hitchhike most of the way home. An old man in a truck who could have been Papa stopped for me. My hair was wet and I couldn’t stop shaking. The man rolled up the windows and turned on the heat, though it was spring. I kept stealing glances at his face. In my state, I couldn’t be sure of anything, including this man’s identity. Papa, how did you know I needed saving?
I felt better the longer we were on the road. I warmed up. The driver cracked his window again and the wind came through. The wind was so loud we couldn’t talk. I grinned because I was alive. How many people come that close to death and survive?
I thought you’d come back for the money, but you didn’t show. There were no phone calls or texts. No visit in the middle of the night. You disappeared, a miracle.
After my grandparents’ deaths, I entered a program for addicts. Then I got a decent job in marketing at a large company that produced software for tax and accounting professionals. Located in a Dallas skyscraper, our office was quiet with brown carpets. The hallways were long and empty, and you could hear the soft breathing of the air or heat, depending on the season.
At work, I was lodged in a place outside of time.
I thought about my former life, all the wrongs I did. The ways I disappointed my family. I’m better now, I thought. A functioning member of society.
At the same time I couldn’t get you out of my mind. I couldn’t understand why you didn’t shoot me, why you didn’t collect your money or pound of flesh. I got angry at you for treating me the way you did. I got angry at you for not pulling the trigger. Put an end to my misery.
The mystery of that moment in the swamp pounded on me, like one of your goon’s fists, but after a while, like most things in life, it went away.
I didn’t think of you for years, but then I saw you on TV and all those fucked up thoughts came roaring back. I felt empty again. I felt an itch.
Again, I drive to your office. I think to myself: today is the day. Have you been hurt in an accident? The blond lady in the Lexus gets to work before you. She is an attractive woman. Nothing happens in the parking lot as the morning passes, and yet I’m excited, my heart pounding. I feel like I’m sitting at the blackjack table again, everything on the line.
Papa would want me to do this. As men, we can’t let others get away with hurting us. We have to strike back.
But Papa hurt people all his life. In the war. Back home after the war. He never got his comeuppance, or maybe he did. He lost his mind.
Am I losing mine?
It’s not a weapon, but my other prized possession is a framed black-and-white photo of Papa from the war. It reminds me of a senior picture, straight out of the high school yearbook, except he’s decked out in his sailor uniform, with the white “Dixie cup” hat and the black V-shaped neckerchief. The framed photo lives on the nightstand by my bed. Over the years I’ve placed it in two different positions. Sometimes it’s face up so I can study Papa’s faint smile, the tilt of his head. His jawline is my jawline. At other times the photo is facedown and stays that way for weeks, sometimes months. I don’t want to see his face, and I don’t want to look in the mirror either.
I don’t have to hurt anyone. I hurt myself for years. I hurt others.
It would be simple. Put the car in drive and leave this parking lot, go home, go to work.
You surprise me by leaving the office early. It’s only 3 o’clock when you skip out of the building, glancing once at the dark sky. For a second, I see my car not starting. I’ve been sitting here all day and at such an important moment, like in the movies, something is bound to go wrong. But the car starts and I follow you, directly behind. I wait for you to see me in the rearview mirror. Do a double take. Remember my face. I watch for a tilt of the head, an angling of the eyes. But you show no awareness of the things around you, looking straight ahead at the road.
You pull the Mercedes into the driveway. I park at the curb a couple of houses away. You go through the front door. It starts to rain, lightly at first. But then it really comes down, hundreds of tiny splashes on the windshield. Within minutes, the rain stops.
I can leave. Why don’t I just leave?
I open the glove box and remove the tanto. I separate sword and scabbard.
The air is cool and smells of the earth and life.
I feel alive for the first time in years as I walk down the sidewalk, looking at your Mercedes, looking at your house. I look at the other houses for witnesses. Given the time of day, your neighbors are likely still at their jobs and yet there’s risk involved. I’m gambling again. Then I’m focused on your black Mercedes, such a pretty car, much nicer than mine.
I think of Papa and his glee at watching Japanese civilians leap to their death.
I think of the bellies of Japanese soldiers as I slice through each tire with the tanto.