Trent Takashima watched his father through the low-hung window of the Los Angeles-bound Amtrak. The son was unexpected and went unnoticed for the length of the train ride that started in Folsom County. He wore a navy ball cap and a pair of impenetrable Ray-Bans which he kept on even when his father could not possibly notice him, such as inside the privacy of the lavatory. Now the train was stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere, central California. His father was standing no more than a couple of yards away from him on the platform with the rest of his ex-convict cohorts. He did not hate the old man—anger, yes, grief and shame, no doubt, but somehow never hatred.
There he was, Mike Takashima, a gaunt old man, looking like a clown in the too-large “I NY” T-shirt and baggy Levis. He wore a smoker’s tan the shade of boiled liver, and his gray shag looked muggier than the polluted March sky above. It was this, the grungy, straggly, yet shockingly full-headed mane defiantly plopped atop an old man’s face, that reminded him that this was the first time he had seen this man under the uninhibited daylight since Trent was a young boy of ten. It was disorienting, the thought that he—Trent Takashima, who had to create himself out of the ashes of parental infamy—could ever have been that boy.
Trent felt a tight grip in his chest. He laid his book aside, winced, and roughly wiped down his face.
When the five-minute departure warning rang out, the female warden, up to then conferring with Mike and four other men in a conspiratorial circle, drew away and motioned for them to follow her toward the entrance of the train. The men promptly formed a neat, compliant line, their expressions impassive and almost saintly. Standing by the edge of the platform and within earshot of where Trent sat, the warden in teal V-neck sweater and black pants handed each of them a starchy-white envelope from her capacious hobo purse. “Here you go, gentleman, good luck,” she repeated this again and again, to every man without fail, in a flat monotone.
The men stole in silently in tandem like penitents before the altar. The compartment was sparsely peopled, scattered dots of elderly folks looking nowhere in particular, some college fraternity and sorority types carrying on loudly from various angles. Trent saw Mike’s squinting eyes glaze over in his direction, but no recognition registered. The son hid his face behind the book and turned his gaze once more out the window. Have you seen me, the bench ad asked, a studio portrait of a fat girl with corn yellow hair and slivery eyes grinning widely at him. I wouldn’t know.
The train soon lurched into gear, and the Folsom men flocked into the next compartment over. Trent could smell the whiff of French fries and burnt meat as the glass double doors shut behind them.
If he wanted to, Trent could just ride this out until the train unloaded them at Union Station. Mike was not expecting him here anyway. Earlier that week when the father had called him collect on his landline (because Trent habitually turned off his cell when at home after work), Trent had to remind him again that no, he would not be able to pick him up directly from Folsom, because things were hectic at work, which was true.
He was the house manager of Parthenia Home in North Hills, a group home for delinquent boys who made it their lives’ work to fill every day with testosterone-rich drama. Just the previous week for instance: 1. Tyron, a 16-year-old kid with severe ADHD and an IQ of a ten-year-old, taking the company van out on a joy ride and deciding to “sell it” to his cousin; or 2: The gay brothers Manny and his “sister” Mario blowing lurid kisses out their bedroom window at a guy napping in his car and the guy subsequently banging on the door with a couple of his “homies” lurking by in order to “beat the shit out of those faggoty bitches.”
What you go to college for dealing with those damned kids? Why do you let them trample all over you?”
Trent sighed, suppressing anger. Was he now giving him advice? “I’ll pick you up from Union Station—that’s U-N-I—”
“I know Union Station. You don’t think I know Union Station? Didn’t I work in Little Tokyo, that there in Honda Plaza for ten years before you were born?”
Trent had no strength to argue. “All I’m saying is a lot has changed since—”
The automated operator’s voice cut in: This call has originated from a California State Prison. It grated on the nerves to hear this message every fifteen minutes. And it was expensive too, each collect call—which Mike liberally made despite Trent outfitting him with a monthly calling card—carrying a $3.25 surcharge and every minute thereafter stiffing you something insane.
“What’s that? I didn’t hear you. That goddamned machine,” Mike said.
“Nothing. It’s not important, Dad.”
“What’s that? I couldn’t hear. I don’t hear good anymore with all this commotion. You got to talk into the phone, Trenty.”
The conversation hobbled on one leg like this until the operator’s voice mercifully intervened once more.
Curiosity finally impelled Trent off his seat on the train in search of Mike. The restaurant cart had a cafeteria-style counter with transparent glass case displaying sundry candy bars, cookies and chips, alongside apples, bananas and other insipid, domesticated fruits. It was quite busy here with most of the tables occupied and the sound of human voices and tinkling silverware punctuating the air, forming a cacophony not altogether unpleasant. Trent found Mike eating alone at a for-two booth near the lavatory. The other Folsom men were congregated at larger booths near the double doors. Seriously obscene amounts of food covered their tables.
“Hey Dad,” Trent said, over the man’s huddled frame. Two hotdogs and a Coke, a bag of corn chips. Chocolate candy wrappers littered the table. Jesus, Trent thought. Mike was a diabetic, had been since Trent was a youngster.
A liver face emerged under the white hair. The old man stared vapidly, his mouth chewing heavily, then his focus latched onto the standing form. “Trenton! My son!” Food debris spattered out as he spoke, a smear of mustard on his chin. He made a gesture to stand, but when Trent quickly settled opposite him, Mike gingerly lowered himself back down. “Here, dig in. I already had a cheeseburger.”
Trent waved his hand no.
The train moved at a steady speed, so steady, in fact, that Trent felt they were at a standstill. They passed homes that seemed oddly dropped down like props on a movie set. He couldn’t imagine anyone deliberately building a home here, out in no man’s land, with mustard-colored field and nothingness looming in the sky.
The father broke the silence. “How’s Jen doing?”
“She’s fine,” Trent feigned a hoarse cough, embarrassed. Mike had never met Jenny, his live-in girlfriend of over two years. She’d politely yet decisively opted out of visiting the father early on in the relationship, and Trent never pursued the matter further. She was a strong woman, an unabashed feminist who sympathized with his mother too much to have high regard for this man who had destroyed the entire left region of her brain hemisphere, resulting in both expressive and receptive aphasia.
Trent tried to be conciliatory: “She’ll be getting her administrative credential this summer. We think her school will bring her on board as an AP. I’m really proud of her, actually.”
“She don’t want to marry you?”
Out the window passed more desolate fields of washed-out weed and desiccated vegetation. Trent could have said, “Is marriage the buffer against domestic violence, you think?” But he checked his tongue. “Well, we have Drew to think about. She and I both agree that we need to be sure before marriage and all that.”
“Does the kid treat you decent? He still don’t call you ‘Daddy,’ does he?”
The Folsom men were eating and counting the money in their individual envelopes. They didn’t talk much or look around for that matter, which struck Trent as odd.
The son shifted his gaze back to the father. “Yeah, Dad?”
“He still crazy about trash trucks?”
Trent laughed. “Oh yeah. Still as ever.” He was pleased at the thought of the four-year-old Drew and his obsession with garbage trucks, incinerators, and anything that scooped up dirt and debris onto itself. Last Halloween he had his mother dress him up as a garbage man with a cape made out of yellow plastic trash bag.
Mike fumbled into the plastic bundle next to him and pulled out a rectangular object. It was a license plate frame. “You think the boy would like it?”
“Well, he’s still working on getting his driver’s license.”
“Read what it says—here,” the old man pointed to the etched inscription. Draw your garbage to Drew, it read. “I made it special at the machine shop. Took a heap of hell for it too. They don’t want you doing nothing personal for yourself.”
Trent thanked him and said Drew would love it. As a show of gratitude, Trent reached across the food and lightly patted the wizened hand opposite him. Yet even at this minimal tactile encounter, he felt strangely awed, as if he were deliberately extending his hand to a viper standing erect, readying to unleash its venom on the naïve victim. Too, no longer was there the heavily guarded enclave of the visiting lounge, effectively foreclosing any meaningful physical contact. Now if his whims so chose, Trent could grab a hold of this man, shake him loose until everything spilled out in the open, readily touched, measured, examined. He could then ask: Why?
But Trent had long ago decided he did not want to know, nor did he need to. He hated drama of any sorts. These things happened in life; sometimes people killed, or attempted to, anyway. So what? People were generally crazy, he thought, in this world gone mad.
The father was a free man now. Folsom was finally behind him, twenty-three years and some messy change later. The guy had walked in still at the prime of his life and was now trudging out greeted by the twilight years. A fucking tragedy, of course, Trent Takashima thought, annoyed by that unwieldy expletive even as his mind churned it out. He deplored that word and those who used it. But always on the brink of his unconscious, he envied their flippant and casual relationship with it. For him who grew up the eldest of three boys, with a father incarcerated, a mother as good as dead with a bullet lodged in her head, and her lover dearly departed with his pelvis blown to shreds, the f-word was never incidental. It remained a demon he could never really exorcise.
When they came home at night to the gray stucco cottage on White Oak Avenue (which belonged to Jenny, Trent helping with the mortgage), Jenny had the candles lit and the country table set cheerfully with a silk embroidered table runner. Debussy played softly from the surround sound speaker, and the smell of hot rolls and turkey in the oven was seductive in a homely way. Drew ran tumbling up to Trent and crashed hard into his leg.
“I helped Mommy with the pecan pie. Come see, Tent, I’ll show you.” He tugged aggressively at Trent’s taut jeans.
“Hold your horses, cowboy. I want you to meet someone.”
The boy blinked up at the stranger in innocent defiance. “Who are you?”
“I’m Trenton’s dad,” Mike challenged back.
“Tenton’s dad?” the boy made a confused mushy face. Yeah, Trenty’s Dad, Mike repeated. “Who’s Tenty?” the boy shrugged his confusion.
“This guy right here,” Mike pointed with his chin. Trent sent a warm smile to Jenny who stood by the threshold of the kitchen with a spatula in hand.
“I never saw Tent’s dad before.” Drew hid his face between Trent’s thighs, his voice trailing away in a muffled whine.
“Well, you’re seeing him now.”
Jenny was beautiful to behold. She had set her abundant red hair in wavy curls and had on Trent’s favorite green cashmere sweater and dark blue jeans. She had lost her professional façade and was easy and graceful. “Hi Michael, it’s good to have you here with us,” she said, with perfect grace of a seasoned hostess. Trent was pleased at her diplomacy and warmth. Seeing her now, no one would have guessed how adamant she was up until the very last moment about housing Mike even for a short while until he could find some sort of job and move out. She had not wanted him here, and Trent did not blame her.
It wasn’t that he was particularly fond of his father or that he even loved him all that much. It was just that with the deaths of Mike’s parents, Trent’s grandparents, and the passing of Mike’s favorite sister—Aunt Debbie whom Trent could not stand—the father was virtually divested of a family. It was also that Trent’s brothers, Brent and Phil, who were just toddlers when it happened, detested and loathed the father so much that Trent almost felt obligated to be the only person not to hate him.
Nor was this easy. When the boys were legally signed over to his mother’s sister “Jaggun Emo,”—Younger Aunt—she and the rest of the Korean family on their mother’s side found creative ways to berate the Japanese nissei Mike and all “Weh-nom“—”Japs”—in general. “It’s the Jap in you,” Jaggun Emo would tell the boys if something wasn’t to her liking. The boys didn’t fare better at their father’s Japanese family either: Many years the boys would overhear adults whispering in Japanese in the other room: “those Chosen-jin“—dirty Korean sub-humans.
“All this good food reminds me of this book I recently read,” Mike said, helping himself to an extra serving of butternut squash. “about this Mayra Hornbuck or other that starved herself into nothing but skin and bones so as to write a book about it. She would just hoard down a cartload of food and puke—”
Drew giggled and chimed in, “Puke, puke!” He stabbed the mashed potatoes to the happy beat of the word.
“Drew, stop that. Eat,” his mother warned.
“Dad, please, we’re eating,” Trent said, sensing Jenny’s imploring eyes.
“My bad. Well, as I was saying, this Hornbuck gal would run to the market, stuff her face some more, and you know,” he hemmed. “vomit.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Drew.” Jenny tucked a spiral lock behind the ear. “Well, it doesn’t sound like this is your favorite book.”
“I mean no, it’s not. Like I say to the guys in there, the whole thing’s a conspiracy.”
“Conspiracy?” Trent paused from knifing the turkey. Drew promptly mimicked his surprise.
“Let me put it this way: what they call a library in there is nothing but books such as Joys of Cooking, Crocheting for Christmas, and get this: Vindication on Women’s Rights by Mary Wollenstone something or other.”
“I think it’s Mary Wollestonecraft,” Jenny corrected.
Mike ignored her and went on. “Well, what I want to know is, what’s a 300-year-old book promoting co-ed and breastfeeding doing in men’s penitentiary?” Mike glared at the adults in triumph.
Drew sat there wide-eyed and frozen like a movie on pause. Trent tried to blink off the fatigue. For the next few minutes, the room was imbued with raw and self-conscious silence. Glasses clanked against table, silverware grating on china.
Jenny said helpfully, “So, were you able to find any books to your liking?”
“No. The only halfway decent book was Moby Dick. Now that’s a man’s book. It’s this big, but I wanted it to last even longer. You race to the end of the book and then what’ve you got? More dots to count on the walls? So I set about reading only a page a day, savoring the moment, you could say.” Mike swallowed an incredible chunk of turkey, triple-decked and dunked in its gravy. “But get this: I get to the end of the book and realize—the whole last chapter’s plain missing! Ripped out! Gone! So it took me 3 years not to finish the book.”
“I think everyone dies except for Ishmael,” Jenny recalled. “I don’t know, it’s been so long since I read it in college.”
“I could have guessed as much. But that ain’t the point. The point is, they put one decent book in there but with the whole last chapter ripped out.”
Life with Mike did not seem seriously worrisome until the following night. It was a Saturday, and Drew was up past his bedtime following Mike everywhere with the license plate frame parked possessively under the boy’s armpit. They had immediately bonded, Mike coaching Drew with checkers and the boy teaching the old man in turn how to play video games on the iPad.
The guys sat watching an ancient rerun of Mad TV from the ’90s on cable, Mike and Drew on the couch and Trent on the orange vintage ottoman across from it. An interloper dressed as Anna Nicole Smith was going shopping at Walmart with her husband. The husband was scattered inside the urn she was caring around like a rag doll. There were several close calls of Anna Nicole tripping over one thing or another. Then she finally spilled her husband all over the pottery aisle. I’m sorry, Howard, she repeated, and scooped up the ashes in the way that only dumb blondes can.
Jenny returned from the kitchen with a tray full of liquor glasses. The room was suddenly dense with the smell of hard liquor. It was a sweet, indolent smell, and it lingered in the air like a drawn-out saxophone. Jenny turned off the TV off-handedly, sported her charming smile, not letting on for a beat that she was offended by Mike’s choice of unwholesome TV program.
“My Uncle Gordie travels all over the world, and comes back with these expensive bottles of tequila but never opens them. I told him, ‘Why put it to waste? Here, we’ll help you drink it.'”
They toasted to Mike’s release and to his future job (trying to prime him for the job discussion), and Mike guzzled down his drink a little too fast. Trent observed the father’s watch. It was made of cheap plastic, one of those things you get in the mail from the Humane Society.
Trent and Jenny knew that the prison had not trained Mike for any useful skill out in the free world and that the pre-release program had been little more than showing the men how to log on to the internet. Of course, resuming his former career as insurance underwriter was out of the question. There were, though, places like Walmart, the local ethnic markets or corner bric-à-brac stores where Mike could be gainfully employed. So sparing Jenny of the embarrassment of broaching the subject, Trent asked Mike for his job plans.
To his surprise, Mike was upbeat about it. “Got a buddy out in New York the name of Yosef Harpaz—goes by the name YoHarp. That got me this shirt,” Mike pulled at the edge of the “I NY” shirt he was still donning. “A real genius, that cat. Did some time for mail fraud, but he’s now a grad student at NYU studying about some kind of hard science—molecular biology or such.” He went on to explain that this friend of his was designing a line of lingerie called Bangkok Laundry, and that Mike was invited to partner the enterprise. Yes, the name of the lingerie line was a bit on the sleazy side, but the point was to use it undercut the very idea of sleaziness. Not that YoHarp wanted to be subversive, heck no, but that his plan was to make heaps of money.
It was ridiculous. Jenny’s expression said it, and Trent’s clacking tongue decided. “This guy is supposedly a graduate student at NYU with a criminal record piloting a lingerie line and inviting you—with no experience—onboard?”
Mike explained the graduate thing was a side gig for YoHarp. The real reason why he was at NYU was because it offered him a free ride and then some. “Look at it this way,” he said, “It’s welfare without the stigma.”
That night in bed, Jenny said: “What are you going to do about your father?” He rolled his shoulders once and turned over on his belly, his face away from hers. It was not “we,” it was “you,” and it bothered Trent tonight. “Did you hear me, what are you going to do about him?” She reached across to his side of the bedside lamp.
The room suddenly flooded with light, making him wince. “Christ, there’s nothing I can do about him this very second. I’ll just let him sleep, is that okay with you?”
“That’s not what I mean, you know that.” After a pause she added, “Hey, why does your father talk like that?”
This time he turned and faced her. “Talk like what?” Jenny was looking up at the ceiling, her fingers idly nipping at invisible seams on the duvet cover. She briefly glanced at him, then back at the ceiling.
“Like, like…He doesn’t talk like any Japanese gentlemen I’ve ever known.”
“Well, maybe you don’t know a whole lot of Japanese gentlemen. Besides, my dad is not a gentleman, as you may have noticed.”
“Fair enough,” she said.
Trent sat up in bed, eyes drilling a hole into the orchid still life painting across the bed. Sleep had fled. “So let me ask you. How should a Japanese gentleman talk exactly?”
“Never mind, Trent. Get some rest.”
“No, you got me started on this. So say it. How should a Japanese gentleman talk? Like your British fathah? All propah like that, huh? How does my dad talk exactly?”
“He talks like…like—”
“Like a black hoodlum, maybe? Or a Latino gangbanger, would you say?” Any more emotion and his voice would crack; he could feel it in his throat.
“No! I was going to say he talks like a pirate! Stop your race paranoia. That’s your problem, not mine.”
“Spoken like a true white woman.”
“You’re a jerk. Fuck you.”
“Not tonight, baby.”
The problem was this: Mike did not stay put in the study where he had his rolled-out bed. He stayed up late watching TV out in the living room and left cigarette butts out on the patio. A few times Jenny—who was an early riser—would find Mike and Drew tangled up and stretched out on the couch. The boy had sneaked out of his room after Jenny and Trent had gone to bed in order to stay up late with Mike. As a token gesture, though, the old man did leave traces of his job search effort on the dining table—applications from National Bank of California, Warner Bros. Studios, Info-Tech Research Firm.
And then, of course, there was the long tirade of how fat Trent was getting. Trent was not fat. He had well-cut arms but was soft around his stomach. When you were past thirty, your metabolism slowed down, what could Trent say? So this scrawny old man lectured him on the virtues of working out. He showed Trent some abdominal moves he had refined from his locked-up years.
“You need to plan your workout,” Mike said, “and follow them. It’s like a road map. Let’s say we’re driving to D.C. We could ask around, sure, but we’ll be lost. We might or might not get there. But if you have a road map, you would know exactly how to get there. Ain’t no telling when, but we would be getting there for sure.” He said Trent should start with loose weights and dumbbells. Start light, he advised. “After a few moves, you feel it. It’s like water boiling. One set, two sets, and you might think nothing’s happening. But that water on the stove is heating up. There’s a boiling point.”
Trent was actually reaching that boiling point; he could feel it. He could feel it in the strain of his relationship with Jenny, the first and only woman he had grown to trust, and perhaps, love. He did not want to lose her over Mike. But memories haunted him.
As a child, some of the fondest memories involved Trent and Mike on their fishing trips together. He recalled in particular the time they were at Marina Del Rey. There had been seals there, watching the two of them on the dock eating corn on the cob with the same hands that had pinned the live jumbo anchovies to the fishhook. The bolder ones were the little seal pups—having ditched their parents somewhere, they would waddle, one by one, near the dock and plead their hunger with their big black eyes. The pups would be so close little Trent could see the fine hair on their slick backs. Look, Daddy, seals have hair! They’re like us! Mike would drop his hand into the soiled industrial-sized bucket and grab out a handful of wiggling anchovies. Here, Son, throw them some. But don’t get too close now.
A week into Mike’s homecoming, Trent bought a 6′ fishing rod from eBay for $65, a one-piece medium spinner complete with tackle and gear. Mike had not asked for it, and Trent declined his money from the prison envelope when the merchandise arrived a few weeks thereafter. Mike was visibly moved, and so was Drew.
That’s when disaster struck.
When Trent went to pick up Drew after school, the main-office secretary told him his grandfather had already done so. He yelled at the woman in the two-piece tweed suit. “Don’t you check the record? Drew is not supposed to be picked up by anyone other than myself or his mother!” He drove home furious that this was happening; what would he tell Jenny, he thought? Swerving the car into the driveway, he rushed to the front door, unlocked it, and sprinted to the study. The bed was unmade and clothes thrown about. He reached into the closet. The fishing pole was gone along with the white bucket that held it up.
Jenny came home after sunset, having gone supervising a home basketball game at school. They fought. Why didn’t you call me, she said, and he answered why should he?
“Why should you? Drew is kidnapped! I’m calling the cops.” She lifted the cordless phone on the glass end table. Trent snatched it out of her hand.
“Stop acting like a child,” he threatened. “They went fishing, for Christ’s sake.”
“Fishing? What business does this man have taking my son fishing on a school night?” She wiped her eyes, looked up, looked down and looked right at Trent. “I know Drew means nothing to you, you bastard. But he’s my son!”
“Lower your voice. Do you want the whole neighbors in on this?” Trent shut the blinds. She was wrong; he cared about Drew. He had no nephews or nieces, his brothers too messed up to start a family. Brent down in Oceanside was a border patrol, drinking from the bottle in his truck while hounding the Mexicans who daily ran across the desert. The youngest one, Phil, on the other side, was living in Asheville, North Carolina working as a sushi help with no vision of anything more. Before Drew, Trent had no desire of having children, terrified of them, really. But now, with Drew, Trent was beginning to contemplate the pleasure of children and the joy of raising them.
Jenny wouldn’t stop shouting. “Oh my God. What have I been exposing my son to? What have I done lodging a murderer?”
“Please Jen, please, calm down. Everything will be okay. Here,” Trent stepped toward her, arms outstretched in a gesture of embrace.
“Get away from me! Everything’s going to be okay? That’s easy for you to say, isn’t it, you son of a bitch—you son of a…killer—because he is not your son!”
She grabbed her purse and fumbled to the front door. He lunged and caught her from behind.
“Give me that. Give me that. Where do you think you’re going,” He clenched his teeth. He pressed on her arms harder to wrest away the purse she was hugging with both arms. “He’s out on parole, goddamnit. Don’t you know that would be the end of him?”
He did not feel the smartness of the slap across his chin right away. In a stunning feat of dexterity she had spun away from his grip and was now facing him. He slammed his body against the door, one arm guarding the doorjamb.
“He needs to be locked away for good!” She fell to the floor, like an imploding building. Wiping her eyes hard against the back of her hand, she glared up at Trent. Then she stood up facing him. Her eyes were big and dilated, the green now entirely black. She looked delirious and blind. Her face, as if possessed by those black unblinking marble eyes, came looming into his purview, just inches away from his own face, a lover’s proximity. In better times, in this closeness, she who was taller than he would have playfully nibbled on his earlobe, one, and then the other, with her soft, beckoning lips.
Now, with her mouth just an ENT instrument away from his ear, she enunciated every syllable for his benefit, “If anything happens to Drew, if that sick bastard so much as lays his hand in any way on my son, I will personally kill you and that sick criminal, that sorry excuse of a human being, that human trash.”
“Stop catastrophizing. Nothing’s going to happen to anybody, and definitely not to Drew. And stop with the name-calling already.”
“I should have known better. I should have known better than to bring you and your kind into my life, into my son’s life. Oh, what have I done?”
He stood there transfixed, almost disoriented in his mixed feeling of awe and disgust at the sight of this dame—this bitch—of the wild pacing back and forth, tearing at her flaming red mane with kill in her eyes. He saw her closing in on him with those bloodshot eyes, with arms raised to strike, but it wasn’t the blow that stung; it was her words, her seething, interminable chanting, “You son of a killer, son of a killer—” Please stop, he said, but the chanting droned on, “Bring him back, you son of a killer, you fucking son of a killer, killer.” Stop it, stop it! Killer, killer!
He slapped her.
In utter disbelief of this unreality, as if to confirm this was really happening, he felt himself mechanically moving to slap her again.
His hand did not shake until after he felt her moist cheek against his palm. Trent withdrew his terrified hand quickly as if snake-bitten and glared at Jenny, not out of anger but out of something more devastating than that.
Jenny cradled her cheek, her lips twitching. Her face was flaming red, as red as her electrified hair. “You know this is it. It’s over,” she said and walked away.
Trent buried his face into his hands and cried, for the first time in his life.
But I love you, I love you, he thought. Jenny was the only woman he ever trusted. Before her, he couldn’t figure women out, what made them tick, why his mother cheated on his father after twelve years of marriage. He played a dirty, terrible trick on his handicapped mother once. He was twenty-two, back visiting Jaggun Emo and his mother during summer break from Cal State Fullerton. Too preoccupied to have close friends, too damned lonely and weird to have a steady girlfriend, he was not above meanness. He had been drinking from the mini-liquor bottles from Emo’s collectible stash. He shoved a passport photo of Mike in his mother’s face. Just for kicks, to see if the brain synapses would flare.
Who is this man?
I don’t know, she said, sweetly, like a child.
Is he handsome, you think? Is he your type?
She hesitated, studied the picture, then drew back and resumed her coy smile. Oh no, I couldn’t. I’m a married woman.
Who are you married to, Mother?
Why, to your daddy. A nice man.
Where is he, Mother? Who is my father?
Our father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come—
Mother, who is your husband? He was shaking her now; wake up from your goddamned slumber, bitch!
You’re hurting me. I don’t know. I don’t know. A good man, I think.
After he had slept off his drunkenness, he felt dirty all over, as if he had raped his unknowing mother.
Two plump mackerels and a gray squid and Drew’s gummy grin later that night did not make it right. Drew was safe and sound, but it did not make it right. Mike reminding Trent about their mackerel and rice dinner long, long ago did not make it right. In the end, it was Trent, not Jenny, who told Mike to get the fuck out. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, that word. Trent meant every iota of it.
At work, Trent was used to the residents saying, “You treat me this way because I’m black (or Mexican or Puerto Rican, and so on). They mostly said it in jest, and Trent could laugh it off, usually. But the day after Mike moved out, when Manny (who had lost his phone privilege because of the lurid-kiss incident) followed him into the office and accused, “It’s ’cause I’m Salvadorian, isn’t it,” Trent lost his patience. “Stop using your minority status as a crutch. Now get out of the office!” he shouted.
Manny arched his well-picked brows and batted his sharply lined eyes. “Ahma call my baby daddy to come whup your ass.”
“Say what?” Trent rose.
“Sike. Girl, you need to chill. Here, ahma leave you alone so you could déjate en paz.” When Mario peeped in to enjoy the show, Manny pulled him away saying, “Trent’s PMS-ing again. Girl, estrogen is all over the floor!”
Trent liked Manny. He was at heart a good kid, just from a broken family was all. In truth, he did not always like many of the other residents who came and went, but he understood them nonetheless. He too, had grown up in a broken family, helplessly in the middle of interethnic hatred between the Japanese and the Koreans within his own family circle.
He recalled the previous year’s Open House at Jenny’s school where, to his surprise, the next generation of Korean and Japanese American students actually got along normally as they should. They were totally oblivious to the historical enmity between the two peoples and looked at him as if he were nuts when he pulled them aside and asked, “You like so-and-so even if he’s Japanese?” or “You like so-and-so even if she’s Korean?” It was true that he was happy for them. But it was also true that he felt strangely betrayed, as if his whole godawful childhood were nothing but a sham, or a hopeless anachronism. For Trent growing up, there was no Hallyu, no Psy and “Oppa Gangnam Style” and its YouTube craze to usher in Asian-Pacific peace.
When Mike finally called, Trent was not surprised. The less than thousand dollars in the prison envelope was a paltry insult to 3 months of living, after all. “Come over, I’ll fix you some fat mackerel steaks,” Mike said, but of course, Trent knew the real deal was that Mike had run out of money.
He drove out to Pico-Union near Downtown, passed the dilapidated buildings with graffiti signs and crumbling turn-of-the-century fire escape stairwell. Mike’s was a rundown brick apartment with a rickety elevator shaft that looked too dangerous to actually use. He ran the four flights up to 43C where Mike waited by the dim, narrow hallway.
The place was exactly the size of Jenny’s walk-in closet with no kitchen, an open wash counter and a bathroom. The walls were dingy and Trent could trace a vague odor of urine rising from the beaten green carpet. A portable electric grill was spread in the middle of the room next to the limp mountain of blankets. The guy was sleeping on the bare floor.
“As you can see, I don’t have much here, but here let me fix you up some scrambled eggs and that fish there.” Mike poured a tub of corn oil into the ready iron skillet. Mike limped across to the mini-fridge next to the wash bin.
“Jesus, Dad. What happened to your foot?”
The whole left foot was swollen the size of a taut football, and the color was that of soot from the bottom of the toes and closing in around the ankle.
“Oh this. It was worst last week. It’s healing up now. Just need to cover when I wash up,” Mike plopped down on the floor and cracked a couple of eggs against the wall.
“It just blustered up one day, walking around in them dress shoes. For the job search, you know. And then the pus just sort of burst and never healed. I mean it would, and then, stupid me, I shower and the scabs just fall right off. I don’t do that no more. But it’s starting to heal up now.”
Trent was not convinced. He suddenly remembered Mike’s diabetes. “Have you been taking your diabetic pills?” His tone was accusing. Mike didn’t respond. “Well, have you?”
“They want $5 a piece for a single pill. What I want to know is, holy crap, who has that kind of money?”
“We need to take you to the hospital.”
Trent waited while Mike double-wrapped the bad foot in plastic grocery bags.
They drove all the way up to El Proyecto Del Barrio, a free clinic in Pacoima, because Trent didn’t know any other. It was a two-story building with the usual doctor’s office pastel wallpapers and rows of faux wood chairs and end tables. One side of the wall was entirely covered in mirrors, top to bottom. It was busy and noisy, babies crying in every direction, people talking in Spanish. They were the only Asians there, making Trent feel guilty, somehow. But he let the guilt just buzz around him, not bothering to squash it as it would drop down and die of its own accord. They took a seat opposite the floor mirror. Trent signed all the forms, took them to the front counter, asked how long the wait was (it was two hours, at least), thanked the grumpy receptionist, and returned to the waiting room. From the mirror, he watched his father gazing unfocusedly at a baby crying in the stroller nearby. This was an old man, snowy head, leathery face, a lost look in his eyes.
“How long?” Mike asked.
“Two hours minimum.” Why bother lying?
The father and son sat in silence, shut out from the Spanish-speaking world around them. Then finally, Mike said, “You think it’ll be alright? I mean, this foot?”
Trent shook his head at the plastic bundle on the carpet. “I don’t know, Dad. It doesn’t look good.”
The silence resumed.
“You and Jenny good?”
Trent sighed. He spoke to Mike in the mirror. “We’ve been having some issues,” he continued into the mirror. “I’m thinking maybe you and I could find a place together. Somewhere near my work, Dad. I can’t have you living in that dump.” He looked away. The crying baby in the stroller was now asleep, its mother reading an Oprah magazine.
“When Phillip was born, your mother suffered something terrible. The pregnancy almost killed her,” Mike said, staring down at his bundled foot. “I went and got a vasectomy. Three boys, we figured, was a handful. No more kids for us.” Trent listened, arms crossed, eyes focused on the plastic bundle. Mike resumed, “It was a simple procedure, nothing complicated. Everyone did it. But mine went wrong.” Mike lowered his face and inched closer to Trent in the gesture of utter confidence. “I couldn’t perform in bed anymore, couldn’t get it up.”
Trent winced, shifting in his seat. “I don’t want to hear this,” he said.
“I hope you’re pleasing Jenny, Trenty. If not one way, then another. It’s important. Me, I was too proud. All was not lost, your mother was patient. I had my tongue, still.” Here, Mike stretched out his tongue, Ah in the mirror. A kid in the corner chuckled.
“Why can’t they amputate this tongue instead of my foot? What good is my tongue anymore? I lost it down there, now my foot too?”
“I don’t think they’ll amputate, Dad,” Trent lied. He turned to Mike. “It wasn’t because she was Korean?”
“It wasn’t because she was Korean—you know, the interethnic tension—that drove you to…you know.”
“Hell no! You think that mattered to your mother and me?”
The past came running back. “Dad, I almost killed a person once.”
Mike furrowed his brows. Trent went on, “I was thirteen, had run away from Emo’s house for the umpteenth time, and was staying with a bunch of boys whose brothers and cousins were in the Waching gang—the Chinese mafia—in Monterey Park.”
“I know the Waching boys.”
“Well, they were a tough lot, and I had something to prove. I needed to be initiated, accepted into their circle, if you know what I mean? I needed to do something reckless, terrible, you know, criminal. So I thought up something.” Trent kneaded his hands. They felt rough. “You remember Harriet in our old Norton neighborhood, that old lady with the Chihuahuas?”
“Sure I know her. She babysat you boys some days and fed you homemade tapioca drinks.”
“I decided to mug her point-blank with a gun. So that morning, they outfitted me with a Beretta 9-millimeter pistol, this thing that fit snugly into my leather jacket. They waited in the car and I paced up and down the street, waiting for her. You remember she always walked her dogs late a night like clockwork. I waited. And waited. And waited.”
“What were you thinking while you were waiting, Son?”
Trent shrugged at the father in the mirror. “I don’t know, Dad. That’s the truth, and that’s what makes the whole thing so terrifying. First, I knew she carried no money. And two, she knew who I was. How could I not shoot her? But I wasn’t thinking about this at the time. All I knew was, I had something to prove to those boys. So I waited.”
“Well, she never showed up. Just that night, out of all the nights, she decided she wasn’t going to walk the dogs.”
“So she spared herself her life.”
“And yours,” Mike bobbed his head in agreement, eyes closed.
They sat in silence. After a spell, Mike, his eyes transfixed into a philosophical pall beyond the realms of the here-and-now, said, “You know, that there saying, ‘Apples don’t fall far from the tree,’ well, they don’t know the heck about you.” After a pause, Mike remembered the rotting foot, flexed it, then chuckled, “As the brothers in the pen would say, ‘Thems the wrong footsteps to follow.'”
Trent turned to his father. He wanted to say something to let Mike know that he appreciated the father’s attempt at self-deprecating humor of goodwill, but no words came. He slapped Mike’s back languidly instead.
“Man, I’m sorry, Trent. I sure as hell am proud of you, if this loser may say so.”
Trent, unconvinced yet compelled nonetheless, said, “Dad, it’s okay.”
“I’m sorry, Son, for everything. I was a goddamned idiot, and I screwed up,” Mike snorted and furiously wiped away the glint in his eyes.
“It’s okay, Dad,” Trent said to the Mike in the mirror. “It’s life.”
The father and son sat facing the mirror, waiting for their names to be called.
Hannah Nahm is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and she also holds an MA in English with a Creative Writing thesis from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Her short fictions have appeared in Amerasia Journal and the Northridge Review. She is working on a collection of short stories.