Sang Chul sat in his father’s store. He did not have to look to know where the merchandise was kept: pet food and cleaning agents (aisle one); cereal, breads and snacks (aisle two); in aisles three and four, produce nestled in plastic grass, luminous waxed apples and pale heads of iceberg lettuce. Refrigerated cases along the far wall were stocked with dairy products and processed meats. There were Asian items as well, jars of kimchi and packets of pressed fish cakes, small frozen packages of dduk between the Häagen-Dazs and TV dinners.
Behind the register Sang Chul perched on a high stool, looking not so much like the ruler of all he surveyed, but like a gatekeeper, some kind of grocery bouncer, with his wincing eyes behind thick glasses, his large rice-belly slackness. For all his size there was something diminished in his appearance, shrinking: the immediacy of sight tempered by glasses, the buffer of flesh between the hesitant personality and the world. He looked lost within his own bulk, awkward, like one of those frightened fish that blows itself up to seem formidable.
In the small room behind Sang Chul, the television was on, scattering blue light like sparks. The sound was turned down and Sang Chul could hear his father out back, already well into his sixth hour of work though it was not yet eleven. He was yelling, “These tomatoes no good! You promised deliver yesterday. I no want now! O.K., O.K., asparagus, O.K. Only two crate? I order three! Ayoo, babo jushagee!”
Sang Chul popped a few pieces of candy into his mouth, being careful to hide the wrapper beneath the page of the comic book he was reading. If his father caught him, he would rap Sang Chul’s head with his knuckles and make him pay the thirty-five cents.
The bells chimed and Sang Chul looked up. A black teenager slipped inside, flashing Sang Chul a narrow smile. He had on a long coat over jeans and black sneakers. His hair was cut close at the base of his head but sprung high on top like moss. Although he was probably around Sang Chul’s age—seventeen—he seemed younger, something in him loose and unfocused. He lacked Sang Chul’s sober weight.
Sang Chul pretended to read his comic book and watched the youth uneasily. He had seen him in here before. The kid cruised the aisles, bouncing high on the balls of his feet, not appearing to look for anything in particular. He seemed to be talking to himself, or possibly singing, muttering under his breath as he wandered from aisle to aisle.
“I can help you?” Sang Chul asked.
“No, man,” the kid said, still smiling that odd smile. He was thin and wiry, with a child’s chest still, though he stuck it out with a grown man’s vanity. “I can help myself.”
Sang Chul looked down at the box behind the counter, which contained his father’s old receipts, his losing lottery tickets, and his gun. He felt his face go hot. Surreptitiously he watched the kid in the aisles, watched as he slid open the door of the refrigerated case. Had he just slipped a can into an inner pocket of his coat? Sang Chul couldn’t tell if he had simply replaced it after picking it up off the shelf. Sang Chul glanced at the pages of his magazine, as though seeking guidance. He loved the comic-book super heroes, dreamed of their invincibility, their assurance of victory. If he had X-ray vision like Superman, he would be able to see inside the boy’s pockets. They bulged suspiciously, but there was no clanking as the boy moved.
“What you want?” Sang Chul asked, in his father’s gruff tone. The boy looked up, startled, then shrugged. “Hey, relax,” he said, holding up his hands. “What’s the rush?”
Sang Chul played with the ragged edge of his comic. He reached a hand in and touched the box with the gun in it, his fingers brushing cardboard. His father would slap him across the side of the head if he discovered merchandise missing after Sang Chul’s shift. “Ayee, such a worthless son!” he’d say. He would grab the gun from the box and hold it out into the empty store. “Next time, you threaten shoot their balls off! They no steal from you anymore!” Sang Chul would nod sullenly and rub his head.
There was a low candy display in the store, beneath the counter with open boxes of chocolate bars, rectangular packages of gum and hard, fruit-flavored candies. It was here he had to watch, because the kids would come in and reach below his line of vision, tuck candy bars into the pockets of their jeans, grab handfuls of loose penny candy and slip it into the waistbands of their underwear. His father had had a mirror up, to watch their hands, but it had gotten broken in a robbery two weeks before. The kid was over here now, right in front of Sang Chul, his eyes lowered and scanning the shelves. He smiled at Sang Chul again, slyly, with a look of pure enjoyment. Sang Chul tried to watch the boy’s hands without seeming to lean across the counter. He could not tell if they had reached into a box or not, could not see well enough to know for certain if the boy had taken anything.
Sang Chul wished somebody would come in, or that his father would come back. His eyes came to rest on the comic book, at the intricately drawn apparatus of some super villain. Sang Chul had been recently trying to draw some comics of his own, had even made up his own super hero called K-Boy whose amazing ability at taekwondo was aided by jet-propelled devices on his feet that would send out searing death rays on contact. K-Boy was a muscular version of Sang Chul, without glasses, of course, and he had a super Chindo dog whose bite contained a rare fatal toxin.
“You want your money?” the kid said, causing Sang Chul to jump. He was staring at him, a bottle of Pepsi in his hand, the change on the counter.
“S-sorry,” Sang Chul said, ringing it up. The money was warm and slightly moist.
The kid put his hands deep into his coat pockets and smiled at Sang Chul again. “Want some?” he asked, holding up an open bag of M&Ms.
Sang Chul blinked and stared at the candy. A feeling of excitement, of danger, charged through him. He felt the sweat in a stripe down his back, his Lakers shirt sticking unpleasantly against him. The kid shook the bag on the counter and two red M&Ms rolled out. From out back, Sang Chul could hear his father. “One-eighteen, ninety? No way. Yesterday you tell me ‘one-oh-nine even.’ I no pay more. Bandit! Aigo…”
Sang Chul picked up an M&M.
“All right,” the boy said. He watched Sang Chul carefully. His face seemed solicitous, considerate.
Sang Chul slipped the candy into his mouth. The kid nodded.
“Thank you,” Sang Chul said.
“No, thank you,” the kid said, and slipped out the door.
. . .
Jakeel laughed, displaying fine teeth like seed pearls. He was sitting on a low wall by the side of the playground, drinking his Pepsi. Howard and BB were there, and Earl Dwyer with the ball in his hand, their faces lit with sweat and sun.
“…so then I twisted the wires, put my foot on the gas, and that baby started purring like a kitten…”
The boys laughed. “What car was this now, 2 Bad?”
“Jag XJ-S. Red with black leather interior.” Jakeel took a swig of soda, wiped his mouth with the back of a nonchalant hand. “And the steering wheel was solid gold, man. I ain’t kidding. Fucking solid!”
Howard snorted and pushed Jakeel off the wall. “Shit, who do you think we are? Solid gold steering . . . Shit!”
BB looked from Jakeel to Howard anxiously. “Could’ve been, Howard. This was, where? Over in the Hills, wasn’t it, 2 Bad?”
Jakeel nodded. “Drove that sucker all night. Just cruising down to San Pedro, engine humming all the way I tell you, man, it was like a dream.”
“That’s ’cause it was a dream,” said Howard. “Only way you be stealing cars is when you’re asleep!”
Jakeel shrugged. “O.K., don’t believe me . . .”
“Tell you what,” Howard said, with a sly smile. “I’ll believe you when I see you. You take me out some night, show me how it’s done. I got my eye on a silver Rolls I seen parked outside a restaurant on Sunset.”
Jakeel kicked at a chunk of asphalt. He looked Howard in the eye, cool and level. “One of these nights, man,” he said, smiling his narrow smile, “sure, we’ll go for a ride.”
BB grinned. “You show him, 2 Bad!”
“We playing some more?” Earl Dwyer said, dribbling the basketball in a tight circle around his body. “Come on!”
Jakeel tipped his soda to get the last swallow. “I gotta be going,” he said. “Things to do.”
Howard laughed derisively. “Like what? Set the dinner table? Scrub the floor? Your mama got you on a leash.”
“My mama don’t have nothing to do with it,” Jakeel said. “I got more to do with my time than hang with you niggers.” He smiled and turned away, sauntered off with as much swagger as he could muster. He could hear Howard behind him, still talking trash.
The trouble with Howard, Jakeel thought, was he had no sense of style. Everybody knew Jakeel was a big talker. That’s why they called him 2 Bad—and no one cared if he actually did the things he said, as long as his stories were entertaining. Jakeel liked to think of himself as a storyteller. He dreamed about someday making movies like John Singleton. He had even written a screenplay, called Homeboy Heaven, which he thought was pretty good. He’d told people some bigwig studio executives were interested, but the truth was he had no idea how to contact them.
Jakeel took out a Hershey bar he’d taken from the Korean grocery store that morning. He ripped the wrapper and let the end of the melting chocolate fall into his mouth. He chuckled, recalling the kid behind the counter, his delicate fat face like a girl’s, tiny, sullen eyes peering from thick glasses. He had looked away when Jakeel came in, pretending to read or watch the silent television, but Jakeel had seen him peeking, had seen the sweat glisten on the boy’s forehead. He had winced when Jakeel addressed him, as though he expected Jakeel to hurt him suddenly, to reach over and yank his straight black hair.
Jakeel shoved the rest of the chocolate bar into his mouth and licked his messy fingers one by one. He saw the Korean kid drive into work in the mornings, in his father’s mint-green Mercedes. Fucking Koreans getting rich in black neighborhoods. Wouldn’t live with them, though. This kid was fat and sad-looking; his father was mean and thin.
Jakeel threw the candy wrapper away from him, as though it were something disgusting. He felt a stirring anger, a vague sense of shame. There had been a moment in the store when he’d almost liked the Korean boy—no, not liked, but—and this brought the shame—felt he knew him. Jakeel had offered the kid some candy he’d stolen from him, just to see what he would do, and the boy had taken it, had smiled conspiratorially and accepted it as a gift. Jakeel didn’t know what he’d expected, but he’d left the store feeling strange.
Now Jakeel allowed himself a comforting anger toward the Korean kid. Fat and pathetic. So scared he couldn’t move his fat ass—fear dripping from his face, palpable in the air. So stupid he couldn’t recognize an insult.
Jakeel let his hand flap against the wrought-iron fence as he walked. He passed the brightly spray-painted side of a liquor store, the barred windows and open doors. He greeted some old men who were sitting on their front stoops. “Hey, Mr. Robley. Hey, Mr. Alton, Mr. Turner.” He passed through the courtyard of the housing project where he lived, passed the torn fence that hung over the sidewalk. His mother and some other women had planted geraniums in green rectangular trays and put them in their windows. They gave the concrete some color. His mother and the others had also covered graffiti in the entryway with dark beige paint and replaced the shot-out lights. But the elevator remained out of order, and bags of garbage spilled out across the foyer.
Jakeel climbed the steps to the apartment on the seventh floor. His mother had gotten a neighborhood committee together; they’d attracted the attention of local politicians, been featured on the evening news. She’d gotten rid of the junkies who used to sleep on the stairs, evicted the drug dealers who’d hang in the courtyards as her children went to school in the mornings. “High time we took back our homes,” she’d said with the cameras on her, a large woman with broad cheeks and bulging eyes that seemed to scan the atmosphere for signs of trouble, like antennae.
Jakeel was proud of her for her activities, though it embarrassed him among his friends, and sometimes even brought trouble. Word was that Willy D. and Tig were going to bring him down, get even with his mother that way. Jakeel had been afraid to go out with the others, had gotten himself a gun from a friend, but a few weeks went by and Willy D. was busted and Tig got himself shot up in a gang war down in Compton.
“Hey, son,” his mother said as she unlocked the front door for him.
“Hey, Mama,” said Jakeel, swerving to deflect her hug. The apartment had a reassuring feminine smell, of talcum powder and floral perfume, and some kind of cleaner his mother used on the floor.
Jakeel’s sisters, Crystal and Charleen, were sitting side by side on the couch, their braided hair in pink barrettes that waved above their heads. “Hello, Jakeel,” they said, without looking up from the television. Jakeel smiled at them. “Hey, little girls,” he said. He took out a box of Milk Duds and some pieces of bubble gum and handed them over. “Whatch’you watching?”
“Oprah,” they said, again in unison. Crystal giggled, showing missing teeth. Charleen hid her smile behind a hand. “Thanks, Jakeel!” They busied themselves with the candy.
“I think highly of the woman,” his mother said, staring at the TV. “But she should quit messing with her hair! And I wish these people on her show would quit whining. I never heard so many self-pitying excuses, I swear!”
“You love that shit, Mama,” Jakeel chided her.
“l know I do, son. I said I think highly of her.” His mother turned from the television. “And don’t talk that way in my house. You know better.”
Jakeel grinned and left the room. Since his brother Trevon had moved out, got his own place over on Crenshaw, Jakeel was left to be the man of the family. “Men need their privacy,” his mother had told him then. She had cleared as much of the girls’ things from the bedroom as she could and let the girls sleep with her in the other bedroom. This had pleased Jakeel and shamed him, as his mother had perhaps known it would, got him to attend school for a few weeks, not run with his friends for a day or two.
Jakeel was proud of his room. It consisted of a narrow bed and a small chest of drawers, a folding card table and a chair. On the walls, Jakeel had stuck billboards he’d torn from around the neighborhood— advertisements for rap concerts and athletic shoes. There was a poster for Spike Lee’s movie She’s Gotta Have It that Jakeel had pulled down from outside a movie theater, a poster of Michael Jordan he’d gotten in a cereal box.
Coming into his room now, Jakeel bolted the door and reached under the bed for his strongbox with the combination lock. He could hear the hyper shouts of some commercial on television, could hear his mother’s voice, low and soothing, the cooing sound of his sisters’ assenting “Yes, Mama’s.” He riffed through the combination, opened the box with a brief struggle—the hinges didn’t align exactly. It was a cheap thing, a mild concession to his mother’s feelings. Jakeel referred to the box as “Mama-Don’t-Wanna-Know” because it contained things he knew she would abhor. There were a few Playboys lying on top, but only to shield what was underneath: a Sony Walkman he’d lifted from a store in Long Beach, with a couple of tapes he liked—Ice Cube and NWA; a switchblade with a mother-of-pearl handle and a six-inch blade; a couple Trojans in blue foil wrappers; and the .357 Magnum that his friend had gotten for him. Jakeel had never fired it, though he’d carried it around in the pocket of his coat for a few weeks when Tig and Willy D. were after him.
Jakeel took the gun out and held it in his hand. It had a heft to it, a feel, that thrilled Jakeel and terrified him. Even Howard would have to be impressed. Jakeel aimed the gun at Michael Jordan’s head, closed one eye and jerked his arm back.
He didn’t like to admit he was afraid of Howard. It wasn’t that he was scared Howard would hurt him personally, though that was always a possibility. And it wasn’t that he was scared Howard would expose his lies to the others. Not exactly that. Jakeel was afraid of the way Howard made him feel. The truth was that Jakeel did not like violence. He threatened people all the time, fucked with them if he had to, but it always made the inside of his head swell with blood, creating a pulsing sensation he did not like, a dizziness that made him crazy. It felt to Jakeel that in these moments he was too intensely present, trapped inside, without the accustomed detachment of imagination. Howard lived in the present, for the rush of moments, the violence and the power.
Jakeel loaded the gun and put it in the side pocket of his coat. He would show it to Howard that evening, let him use it maybe, as a peace offering, a way of ingratiating himself. Maybe Howard would let him off the hook then, about stealing the car. If not, Jakeel thought, there were people around who could teach him how. It couldn’t be that hard.
When Jakeel came back out into the living room, his mother was shaking her head at the television screen. His two sisters were wide-eyed, their mouths twin configurations of dismay.
Jakeel glanced in the direction of their gazes. Oprah had been preempted by a special news bulletin. The picture on the screen was of a courtroom with people restlessly sitting in their chairs, standing, leaning across tables.
“I can’t believe this,” his mother was saying, over and over, in a voice that sounded truly surprised. “I can’t believe it. Oh, Jakeel, baby, they found all those policemen not guilty.”
Jakeel stared at the TV. The verdict was being read by the judge in an official monotone, a string of boring language punctuated repeatedly by the words “not guilty.” Then they were showing the dim blue videotape they had seen many times: the vertical figures, the horizontal, the swooping blows, the stumbling. Every movement seemed perfectly economical and efficient; there was no wasted effort. It looked almost choreographed.
“How could that be?” his mother was saying. “It’s not right. It’s not right, son.”
Jakeel turned away from the television, toward his mother. She was looking at him with a wounded expression, as though it were Jakeel who disappointed her. He saw the sag of her jaw, the dark, lined crescents beneath her eyes, the twist of her mouth—and he felt the rise of anger. Her sorrow rankled him. “Aww, Ma,” he said, impatiently, as though talking to a child. “Don’t make me have to tell you.”
Sang Chul looked down at the streets with apprehension. He was afraid of heights. The inside of his head was pounding with the fear. He closed his eyes.
“Ja, Sang Chul-ee, heh-ba!” His father handed him the gun. “Remember,” he said in Korean, “be prepared for kick-back. Aim low because the gun will pull up. O.K.”
It was a warm night with no breeze. A gauze of cloud drifted across the darkening sky. There was fire on the horizon, seeping across the skyline in a jagged line. Endless drone of sirens, pillars of ascending smoke, wafting shouts and cries of people on the streets. From the roof of his father’s store, Sang Chul watched a crowd break a plate-glass window with steel bars and pieces of lumber. A burglar alarm sounded, mixing in the still air with the more distant wails of alarm.
Sang Chul’s father and the other shop owners in the area were trying to defend their stores. On his father’s instructions, Sang Chul had hung a sign across the front window: JUSTICE FOR ALL! Just in case, they would stand guard all night. Sang Chul’s father, who had been a lieutenant in the ROK army during the war, had dug out his old green army fatigues with a military cap and boots. He seemed almost cheerful in the face of the unrest. Since coming to the U.S. five years ago, Sang Chul couldn’t remember seeing his father look so animated.
“O.K., O.K. Let’s go!” he said now, clapping his hands smartly, as though he were addressing an entire military unit.
Sang Chul took the gun—it was a nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistol—and aimed at the makeshift target his father had fashioned from a cardboard box. It had a vaguely human shape and was propped on the side of the roof with a two-by-four. Along the side of its oversized head and body were the letters EX FACIAL TIS. Sang Chul closed one eye and tried to align the barrel of the gun with the center of the target’s head. His glasses slipped down. He tried again.
“Stop, stop, stop,” his father shouted. He stepped forward and seized Sang Chul’s arm. “Like this,” he said, slapping Sang Chul on the side of the head. “Aigo, stupid boy!”
Sang Chul tried again. His eyes teared with the intensity of his focus, blurring and obscuring his vision. He shot, knocked back by the force of the gun’s backward motion. The loudness of the report rang in his ears. He shrank from the edge of the roof so no one, looking up, could see him up there, the lone marksman. His father went to the target and exclaimed, disgusted, when he could find no hole.
The comic-book heroes that Sang Chul admired—Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America—had no use, it seemed, for guns. Their clever bodies came equipped with natural protections, enclosed systems for attack, maneuver and escape. They had the benefits of subterfuge and clear mental and physical superiority. Never before had Sang Chul realized how far he was from his fantasies. He was fat, clumsy and inept. There would be no miraculous transformation.
“You miss completely!” his father was saying, shaking his head. “Stupid boy. Try again.”
Sang Chul raised the gun in both hands this time, to control the shaking, and this time he imagined the target was his father, the rough contour marking the narrow, silver-haired head, the cardboard face drawn with his father’s contemptuous smirk and mocking eyes. He imagined it was his mother’s face, beautiful—pale and smooth as porcelain—red-rimmed from crying on the day she’d left them for a wealthy American jeweler from Redondo Beach. He imagined it was everyone who had given him trouble since he’d moved here, called him names, beat him up, looked at him with derision, or spoke to him in condescending words they thought he could not understand. All the hate and rage that seethed in the boy, inexpressible in the languages of his old country and his new, all the frustration, the feeling of helplessness—for he had never wanted to leave Korea in the first place, had never asked to come here where he did not belong—all the stockpiled emotion he had been carrying inside, seemed to gather in the muscles of his arms at that moment, to burrow into the pistol he carried, squeezing out the trigger and straight into the target, exploding a hole in the cardboard head with the force of his will.
“Good, good,” his father cried, clapping Sang Chul hard on the back, though this time with pleasure. “Now you are ready!”
There was an air of holiday in the streets. People were everywhere, standing around, staring, running. Fires were burning all across the city, sending sparks and smoking ash like extinguishing fireworks displays. Jakeel winced into the brightness of the flames. The streets looked different illuminated in this crazy way, in oranges and black, dancing fire and shadows intertwining. Glass sparkled like jewels on the sidewalks.
“Look at this,” Jakeel said in amazement. “It’s like Disneyland!”
“Yeah,” Howard slapped him on the back, “and you’re fucking Mickey Mouse!”
The boys followed the crowd. People were running into stores and grabbing things: clothes, bottles of liquor, jewelry and cassette tapes. It was like a scavenger hunt, a once-in-a-lifetime close-out sale. There was almost a panic as a store was broken into, people rushing in— wild-eyed consumers—scanning shelves and lunging for merchandise. They would carry a load in their arms, drop it when they saw something else they wanted.
“They shouldn’t be doing this,” Jakeel said at first. “This is supposed to be about justice.”
Howard shook his head. “You don’t get it, do you, 2 Bad? The law don’t apply to us, that’s what this is all about, man. We don’t get justice, so we don’t live by the law.”
Jakeel felt uncertain. He watched as a woman ran by clutching a slipping pile of dresses. One or two fell to the ground and were snatched up by the people behind her. Jakeel saw whites and blacks, Hispanics, Asians; it was a melting pot of greed.
“Aw, 2 Bad,” Howard said, his eyes narrowing unpleasantly, “you disapprove of this shit? You getting morally outraged, think you’re some kind of Boy Scout?”
Jakeel hesitated, then gave Howard his meanest look. “Hell, no,” he said. “I’m down with you, bro. Take a look.” He took the gun from his pocket.
Howard whistled. “Hey! Give it over here, let me see.” He held the gun up; it looked smaller in his large hand. “Now this is a motherfucking gun!” he said, admiringly. He held it out and aimed it. “Yeah, 2 Bad, let me hang on to this for a while.”
“O.K.,” said Jakeel. He smiled at Howard and beckoned. “Now come on, I know where we can go to have us some real fun.”
Sang Chul and his father moved down from the roof to patrol the sidewalk outside the store. Around them, fires burned, mobs assembled. Sang Chul felt almost faint with tension. His face was so shiny with sweat that his glasses would not stay on, he kept pushing them up every few seconds, peering woefully out until they would slip down again.
Some people had yelled at them. “Fucking Koreans, go home! We don’t need your greedy yellow ass!” And his father had threatened one man in a Raiders cap, warning him off with his rifle. “I support this neighborhood!” his father had said. “I always help black peoples.” So far, the store had remained untouched.
Sang Chul’s father had parked his Mercedes around back, but he worried about it a great deal and kept peeking around the corner to catch sight of it. Whenever he walked to the corner, at the farthest point from Sang Chul, who was instructed to stay on the far side of the store, Sang Chul felt uneasy, abandoned. He clutched the gun tighter and imagined he was back in Seoul eating noodles with his cousins, or rummaging through boxes of comics at the bookstore in Taegyero. He remembered eating roasted sweet potatoes in the alley near his house and watching his mother do the laundry. His father used to take him to movies then, martial-arts films on rasping projectors, in theaters with heavy red-velvet curtains. They used to go to Taechon in the summertime, camping on the beach and swimming in the cold water of the Yellow Sea.
It was becoming hard for Sang Chul to remember what Korea had been like, what it had meant to feel totally at ease in a place. That life seemed like someone else’s now, scenes he had witnessed from the other side of a peephole, watched with a blinking guilt and overwhelming longing.
“Yo, Fat Boy! That you?”
Sang Chul squinted, pushed his glasses up.
” ‘S me. Your man. Remember?”
He saw two teenagers. The one on the right was the one who had been in the store this morning. Sang Chul remembered the long coat with the pockets. He blinked and held the gun out.
“You ain’t gonna shoot me, are you, Fat Boy?” The boy’s voice was taunting, merry. “I thought we was friends.”
The big kid, in a black-hooded sweatshirt, laughed. “Ain’t it against your religion to kill us?” he said. “Like you won’t be re-in-carnated into shit, you smoke somebody? Am I right, 2 Bad?”
The kid in the long coat nodded. “That’s right.” He pointed a finger at Sang Chul. “You kill me, you be re-in-carnated into fly shit, Fat Boy. You hear me?”
“No speakee English.” Howard stepped closer to Sang Chul. “What you got that gun for, boy? You ain’t got the guts to use it.”
Sang Chul looked desperately over at his father, who was on the other side of the store with his back toward him. He did not want to move, did not want to betray his terror. He needed, suddenly, to pee very badly. From somewhere in back of them, there was the sound of shattering glass. He felt his heartbeat rush to his throat. He heard his father shout, saw him disappearing around the corner. In his head, Sang Chul saw the Mercedes, its windshield smashed front and back like spiderwebs in the dew. He felt a small tick of satisfaction, before the return to fear.
“Hey, Fat Boy, I’m thirsty! Open up and let us have a Coke!”
“Yeah, man. What you closed for? It’s too early!”
Sang Chul stood his ground, watched the boys dance around him, circling, jumping, closer and then back. He watched their faces, bright with amusement and their sense of their own wit.
“We’ll help protect your store, man,” Jakeel coaxed. “Look, show him, Howard.” Howard pointed to the gun in his belt. “We’re your friends.”
“Come on, let us in.” Jakeel was pleading with him, his face almost kind. Sang Chul remembered this morning when the kid had offered him the candy. He felt the same confusion he had then, the complete willingness to be taken in. The boy’s face was gleaming, his eyes bright with confidence, focusing on Sang Chul with an intensity, like a spotlight. Something in Sang Chul didn’t care if he was being made a fool of, if the boy’s words were insincere, as long as he could remain in the dark center of that regard.
Sang Chul smiled at the boys now. He would let them in, let them take what they wanted. Then they would really like him. He got his keys out and started to unlock the door.
“Hey, all right, Fat Boy!” Jakeel said, looking at Howard. “You’re all right.”
Howard grinned and shook his head. “This is beautiful, man!”
Sang Chul pushed down on the latch and the door opened.
“Sang Chul-ee!” Sang Chul slammed the door closed at the sound of his father’s voice. He turned and saw him running around the corner with his gun forward, his finger on the trigger. His face was distorted with anger, with a twisting rage. Sang Chul was up against the door; he could feel the dig of the keys in his back. He closed his eyes, believing for a moment that his father was going to shoot him.
From close beside him, Sang Chul sensed movement. He opened his eyes and saw Howard’s gun, but he could neither move nor speak. There was a cracking sound, a tendril of smoke, and his father fell, as though blown back by the noise.
“Why’d you have to do that, man?” Jakeel screamed. He looked up at Howard, the pulse pounding in his head. “Aw, God! Why’d you do that?”
Howard looked dazed. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, tucking the gun into his belt. “Come on!”
Jakeel was crying, shaking his head. “Fucking shit, man! Fucking shit!”
“Let’s go!” Howard said. He pulled Jakeel by the arm.
“Abojee, abojee!” Sang Chul called to his father, as though he were far away. He crouched beside him, his fat face wet with tears. He had lost his glasses. He touched his father’s bleeding chest with his fingers. His father wet his lips and seemed to nod. Sang Chul, not knowing what to do with his father’s compliance, this uncharacteristic stillness, patted his hand.
“Call 911! Call 911 !” someone shouted from across the street.
“The whole city’s burning, man!” someone yelled back. “No use calling, ain’t nobody come.”
The fire was getting close now. Sang Chul could feel the heat against his cheeks. The flames leapt and flew across the darkness. In the background, the dull whine of sirens. Sang Chul felt a momentary confusion, the sense that the sirens were coming for him, that he had been the one to shoot his father. He felt himself inside the flames, something of himself burning—burning up, burning off, burning down—and he could not remember what had happened, why he was kneeling here and his father was so silent. The heat made him drowsy and he desired sleep. The sirens faded, became the sound of birds screeching.
Flames lapped against the sides of buildings. Sang Chul bowed his head to the sound. When he looked up, the landscape wavered, blurring green and tender. Sang Chul could not, for a moment, recognize the young pines, the rocky shore. The pungent smell of salt braced his lungs.
“Listen, abojee, listen,” Sang Chul admonished, holding up his hand. “You can hear the sea.”
K-Boy and 2 Bad was published in Youth Culture in 1995.