My father’s dentures sat in a cup full of water by the bathroom sink, each tooth eerily elongated, pink gums gleaming. I hated and feared them. They seemed to watch me, regarding my habits of hygiene in permanent gnashing judgment. I began to drape them with toilet paper whenever I went in.
My father found them uncomfortable. When in the house, sitting in the orange armchair reading his magazines, he always left them out. His mouth without them was puckered and concave, giving his narrow face the appearance of a skull.
He took them out at the dinner table despite my mother’s objections. Immediately upon gobbling the last of the rice from his bowl, or sucking the last noodle, he would slip his dentures out and put them on his napkin. Click, click, would go his tongue as he cleared the food from where the dentures had been. He would turn on the news and continue to move his tongue around in his mouth, gesturing for me to turn up the volume. It was the time of the counts – how many of them, how many of us – and of the pictures of the muddy dead; strange still photographs from a restless medium. And my father was riveted.
“Kevin, Jane, you’re excused now,” my mother would tell us and we all sat and watched. My father shook his head at the tv screen and muttered. “Communist,” he’d say. “Viet Cong, the worst. Look at that, look at that! Oh my god!”
Words occurred to me, arguments rehearsed themselves eloquently inside my head. But I said nothing. In matters of rebellion, I, like the Viet Cong, preferred guerilla war.
My father wore an American flag pin on the lapel of his coat, but still the boys who hung around the corner liquor store called names as he went past. In the pharmacy, the salesclerk looked pained as my father asked her questions. Her pale mouth would go slack, her nose crease. “What?” she’d ask, insolently, until I’d want to slap the color into her cheeks. My father would patiently repeat himself and get angry if I tried to intervene.
“I can speak myself,” he’d say.
“But she just kept pretending she didn’t understand you.”
“It’s the accent,” he would shrug. “She’s not used to it.”
My brother came home crying one day because some boys at school had called him gook. “They said American boys were dying because of me,” he said. “They said I wasn’t worth it.” His small, serious eyes looked red behind the black-rimmed fortress of his glasses.
My father frowned. “You tell them you’re Korean,” he said.
“Oh Dad,” I protested. “They don’t understand the difference.”
My father turned his attention to me. His eyes had no centers. “This is your fault, Jane,” he said. “You brought this on.”
I felt heat on my face, as though I’d stooped to open an oven door. “My fault?” I said.
“You’re American girl because I make you American girl, but you’re not grateful. You think America’s wrong, bad country. Stupid! You think you like Communism? What do you know about it?”
“Yubo,” my mother said, putting a hand on my father’s elbow. “Kujima.”
“Stupid girl,” my father grumbled and turned away. “Stop crying,” he said, cuffing my brother on the ear. “Show dignity.”
Other pictures came into our living room. Of campus protest: anti-war demonstrators burning draft cards, going limp as they were dragged to the police vans. This got my father going. His tongue would click madly against his gums. “Stupid people,” my father would shout, lisping slightly. “Idiots! Send them to North Korea, to Soviet Union. See how they like it!”
I was secretly impressed by the images. I saw a Vietnamese monk immolate himself in protest. His loosely fitting robes tucked beneath him, he burned; the flames flared across his body with the wind. In my room, I held my hand over a candle until the heat made my head tight with pain. I wrote poems about the senselessness of war, with chess metaphors and images of dead men’s eyes. A few got published in the high school literary magazine.
Amy Zimmerman and I organized a school walkout in support of peace. About 70 kids participated. Some of them just wanted to skip gym class or to smoke a cigarette outside in the parking lot, but we held defiant peace signs up at the principal, a large man with a small head who turned red to the roots of his hair yelling at us to get back inside. Amy and I held a brown paper sign we’d stolen from the cafeteria and written on the back of: PEACE NOW. U.S. OUT OF VIETNAM. The other side said “Go Trojans. Crush Schuylerville High.” It got an inch or two in the local paper. I was quoted as saying I thought high school students needed to get more involved in the movement.
“Chink, chink,” the boys on the street called after me. “VC spy. Why don’t you go home where you belong?”
“I feel shame for you,” my father said, jabbing at the newspaper with a pointed finger. “Stupid girl think she knows anything about war? Better stick to your study. Maybe you get better grades.”
. . .
My father had a passion for skiing. He threw himself into it with customary intensity. In the summers he would study maps of ski areas, smoothing them across his lap, tracing new trails with his finger. We’d take day trips to mountains. We rode the chair lifts up and hiked down a trail, my brother and I windmilling through the steep grass. And in the winters, we’d go skiing every weekend, waking up in the dark to get there by the time the lifts opened.
My mother wasn’t very athletic and she didn’t like the cold. She took my brother out on the bunny slope for an hour and spent the rest of the time in the lodge with a book. I liked to go fast. My father tried to teach me a snowplow turn, exaggerating the shift of weight as he slid in wide arcs from one side of the trail to the other. But I preferred to barrel down straight, stopping at the end by falling over.
“Dangerous!” my father hissed, yanking me up with a gloved hand. “Learn to steer.”
I broke a ski pole at Killington, bent it in a fall. I tried skiing without it, but it was hard to keep my balance. My father took me to the shop in the base lodge and we looked at poles. The prices were high there, and the salesclerk looked at us skeptically.
“Where you folks from?” he asked.
“Schenectady,” my father said.
“Oh, no,” the man said, laughing, “I mean originally. You know, what country?”
“Ah,” my father nodded. “Korea.”
I gripped a pair of sky blue ski poles and bent my knees. They felt heavy; the rubber grips were hard against the palms of my hands.
“Korea, huh?” The man’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to consider something. “I was over there. Inchon,” he said. “Coldest damn country I ever seen.” He grinned. “That kimchi keeps you people warm, though, doesn’t it?”
My father nodded, bobbed his head.
“Couldn’t stomach the stuff, myself,” the man said. “Course, it’s been a few years since I was there, but it was like a desert then, just rubble and dirt and little kids by the sides of the roads. You done well to come over here.”
Inside my thermal underwear, turtleneck, ski sweater and parka, I was starting to sweat. “Come on, Dad,” I urged him. “Let’s get this pair.”
But he continued to listen to the man, smiling politely and bowing his head.
It filled me with rage, this bowing and scraping of my father’s, his coolie servitude. I could barely stand to look at him. That he was my father made me ashamed.
“Yeah, you’re lucky to get over here, I guess.” The man frowned. “What line of work you say you’re in?”
“I’m an engineer,” said my father. “At GE.”
He looked impressed. His eyes widened under a thick brow. “An engineer! Well, I guess you’ve done well for yourself so far from home. Your English is pretty good too. Anyoung-hush-a-mi-ka. How about my Korean, huh?” He laughed and my father joined in.
“Good! You speak very well,” my father said.
“Come on, Dad. Let’s get these.”
My father turned to look at me and the recognition came back into his face. He nodded and took the ski poles from my hand.
“You folks have a nice day now,” the man said as we left. His gaze lingered on as we walked away.
“Couldn’t you see he was making fun of you?” I said when we were outside. “He hates us, can’t you see that?”
My father blinked at me. He sucked in the cold air. “You look for hate, you find it,” he said. “Why look?”
On television the Tet Offensive unfolded, setting my father on the edge of his chair. The Viet Cong attacked Saigon and Hué and 30 other provincial capitals. The Communists controlled the entire Western half of Vietnam.
My father shook his head at the images of combat – men in helmets lined with leaves firing rifles into jungles, dead soldiers with dog tags, Vietnamese people in straw hats. “Viet Cong made big mistake,” he said. “Now they see what Americans do.” He looked at me. “Jane, you think Americans should go home, leave country to Communists,” he said mockingly. “You want Communists win.”
“Of course not, Dad. You don’t know what I want,” I said and left the table.
I wasn’t home when it happened, but when I came back, there was a police car parked in the driveway. Someone had thrown a brick through the living room window. Written on the side of the brick in white chalk was the word “gook”.
My mother sat in the chair furthest from the window, crying. My brother stood in back of her, picking with his fingers at the nap of the fabric. Standing in the middle of the room, his foot a few inches from the broken glass, my father conferred with the policeman. He seemed calm. He looked up as I came in.
“Oh, Jane,” he said, “you’re home. We worried about you.”
“Who did it?” I asked. “Do they know who did it?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” the policeman said. “Got any ideas?” His notebook was open.
I looked at my father. “Well, what about the boys who hang out outside Paterson’s? Rick Leszczynski and that crowd?”
My father shook his head. “No, no, I don’t care who did it,” he told the policeman. “Let’s just forget about it.”
“But, Dad,” I protested, “those guys are always hassling us, calling us names. I’m sure one of them must have done it.”
The policeman wrote something down.
“I don’t believe it,” my father said.
But after the policeman left, my father sat in the orange armchair for a long time. He’d covered the hole as best he could with a piece of cardboard from the basement, taped across it with masking tape. My mother and I had cleaned up the glass, vacuuming the rug to get the smallest slivers. The brick had been left on the coffee table, its message smudged so it looked like “cook”.
“Who would do such a thing?” my mother muttered as she tidied up. “Aiee, yubo, maybe we should just go back home.”
My father gave her a severe look. “This is our home, Mi Young,” he said. “We are American citizens.” He didn’t have his dentures in and his words came out strangely slurred, as if he’d been drinking. He stared out the bandaged window, puckering his lips thoughtfully. His eyes were opaque.
“Dad?” I said.
He looked at me and I saw he was angry. He stood up. “Stay here,” he commanded. He grabbed the brick and made for the door.
“Yubo!” my mother shouted. She pushed my shoulder. “Jane, go get your father!”
I followed my father’s shadow down the street, passed the closed brick houses separated by chain link fences and newly tarred driveways, to the commercial end where the boys hung out in front of the liquor store.
There were only three of them out there, Rick Leszczynski, Tim Paterson, and another guy. They were big compared to my father, with the dense solidity of youth. I knew them from high school. My father was screaming at them, waving the brick in the air as though he meant to heave it.
“You stupid boys, what you know about me? …Nothing, you don’t know… I fought with Americans during Korean War, side by side with American soldiers… I get PhD from SUNY-Albany… I am American citizen… My children born here…”
I watched from a distance as my father sputtered. Toothless, with a heavy accent, he was almost inarticulate, but the boys seemed to listen attentively.
“…you threaten my family? You destroy my property? Why don’t you fight for your country you are so patriotic? Why don’t you helping USA against Communists? Aiee! Keh-saki-ya!”
As his English broke down, my father switched to Korean, his voice rising in a hysteria of curses. The three boys stood motionless, leaning against the wall. They appeared stunned by my father’s tirade. Rick glanced quickly in my direction, then looked down. Finally, my father threw the brick against the ground and a few chips flew off. He spat and muttered and turned away.
“Crazy old man,” one of the boys said softly.
I followed my father back to the house. His shoulders stooped as he walked, his hands hung loosely at his sides. He looked tired, exhausted, as though he’d been walking all night.
“Dad,” I said, “it’s okay.”
My father wheeled around. His expression was incredulous. “You tell me it’s okay,” he said. “I don’t think so.” He stared at me. His whole face seemed to be collapsing, from his cheeks to his jaw, his skin hung slack on sharply angled bones.
When he got to the house, my father went in, but I stayed outside on the front step, forcing my breath in the dark. Gray clouds obscured the stars.
“You look for hate, you find it,” my father had said. But what if it searched you out, dogging you everywhere you went, until you heard it like the pulsebeat of your own heart, always? I had thrown the brick to make him see the truth, but he had only seen the lie – had seen the hate in them and not in me. I felt a bitter triumph, like a sudden blooming, and I wept for my own despising.
“The Brick” was first published in River Styx, Number 31. It later was read on National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts program in 1999.