A short story from my book Or Something Like That told from the view of an old man, living in New York City, reminiscing in a way about his youth, even though his youth took place in a war zone in Korea.
I lived under a Korean grocery on 181st. It was a steep hill and I used to enjoy walking up the stairs and knocking over his display of oranges so that they would go rolling, bouncing, tumbling down the hill. I would knock over his fruit display as often as possible. He never knew it was me. It would take him some time to notice. When he would notice, I could hear him screaming in Korean. It brought me great joy to hear him scream like that, even though he was a good friend to me and often gave me free fruit. I opened my little window just down the hill and stuck my ear out of it, a beautiful smile unfolding. His screams brought me back to my youth.
I fought in Korea and that’s where Danny died. He was surely a brother to me. Not a very good gunner, but a brother, yes. I never liked him, but I find myself now, fifty five years later, thinking about him every morning when I hear that grocer scream. The way that the grocer screams, it reminds me of the war and makes me feel young again. When I hear the man, his inflection, his red hot anger, I am sent back to the mud, where I lay crouching with my rifle- listening to the patrols pass after our plane had fallen. Danny is lying somewhere close, he is all cut apart. I’m just doing my best to make it out of there alive.
I did. I made it out of there alive and Danny, I still am.
There are only so many hours in the day that you can sit in your apartment waiting for your pension check to arrive. There are only so many walks you can take to the park, to sit and play checkers. There are only so many doctors appointments that you can attend with a straight face.
I went to one the other day. The doctors now are all short men from India but their nurses are still young girls who smile and laugh at my jokes. I make a point to try and get them all to laugh. I tell them that if I wasn’t dying I would chase them down and make honest women out of them. But what is honesty really?
I sat in the bed, kicking my legs, a tall blonde walks in. So serious, so focused. I remind her. “Look we’re all gonna die anyway, don’t let all of this impending death get you down.”
This catches her by surprise. I introduce myself. I offer her my hand. My arm is thin and has many bruises on it, somehow my hands are still strong. Don’t ask me how. They have been idle hands since I left the machine shop in ’92. She says hi, says her name is Allison Lewis, she starts to take my blood pressure.
“You remind me of my first wife. You look just like her. I remember her so well still, we had our own personal language. We could speak for hours without saying a word.”
“Oh?” Allison says.
“Yeah, listen with your heart, babe. I’ll show you.” I squeeze out a very serious fart. She pretends not to hear it. “Oh come on, I know you heard that fart! What? You don’t like that kind of language?” I squeeze out another one. She backs away, kind of gagging- but, just like my Gracie, somehow smiling. “There you go. Smile a little it’s not gonna kill you.”
“Oh boy.” She says holding her nose.
I was sitting there in my baby blue paper gown, looking at her in her sea green hospital scrubs. “Boy, kid, me and you are sure making a fashion statement right now. Look at us. We look like we belong on the red carpet. Me in my paper gown and you in your scrubs. You’re a pretty girl, I bet you have nice dresses- you should wear a nice dress to work. I’d say that you could get yourself a doctor, but things have changed haven’t they?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well when I was young, all the nurses became nurses just so they could try to marry a doctor. Now all the doctors are short fat men from India and China or Korea. All the Nurses nowadays become Nurses cause they actually want to help people.”
She was checking my heartbeat with her stethoscope, making a note on her little pad. Did the note say Contact Dispatch Personnel to Transport This Wingbat Old Pervert to the Convalescent Home ASAP. “You remind me exactly of my Grandpa.”
“You miss him?”
“Yeah, sure do.”
“Listen, babe. I’m gonna be honest with you. My pecker hasn’t worked in a decade. I don’t even know what sex is anymore. I still like to look at pretty girls, my brain does anyway, makes my heart feel young.”
“He was a dirty old man like you, you two would have gotten along.”
“I don’t get along with anybody. Never did.”
“Oh, you seem nice.”
“Come to dinner with me.”
“Sure. A conversation. You kids still eat food right? Thinner and thinner every year. You ever eat food? Familiar with it? You should have seen the women that were around when I was your age, they were built like horses, thick, dangerous, thighs like columns.”
“I outta hit you right over the head with this clip board. I’m not going on a date with you.”
“Ok, babe. Send in the little fat Indian man to tell me I’m dying.”
Then Allison smiled and left, sent in the little fat Indian man to tell me that I was dying. Only he was a little more delicate than that, he said, “Radiation treatment can go a long way, we caught it relatively early…”
I said, “Look, early happened seventy-nine years ago.”
He blinked about ten times, standing there with his chest hair poking out of the collar. He was drumming his belly with his fingers, searching for a route of dialog. Then, finally, I said, “Doc, I want to show you something. I think I found another lump. Will you look at it?”
“It’s right here.” I flipped, face down, lifted the paper gown and got on my belly. Shame has been out the window since Eisenhower. I pointed to the back of my upper thigh, “Look…”
He is a very professional man. He leaned in to inspect the area and study possible malignancy of the growth. I’m a one trick pony, I let out the most serious of farts right into his face. He pretended that he didn’t notice. I remained wordless. Then he looked closer, there was nothing for him to find there except another fart, this one twice as serious as any I had ever released into the world. I sat up, beaming, proud of it.
“I never had kids, but that last fart, it made me about as proud as I can imagine a father must feel.”
He kept his distance, he continued to tell me about the path of treatment and recovery. I just nodded and listened. He was a very professional man.
When I was his age, do you know what I would have done to a man who farted in my face like that? I would have…well, nothing I guess. If the man was as old and weak as me, with a buzz cut and a head that looked like a damaged potato and the chicken bones poking out everywhere. I probably would have been as kind as possible, delicate, knowing that the man in the paper gown knew that he was dying and that when you know that all bets and understandings are off. Listen, out of respect, I’m still gonna feed you that bull, as if we were still powerful creature in no state of decline.
I’ve got that card of disillusion up my sleeve.
An index card with a speech addressed to Jesus handwritten by myself in neat block letters that I am going to recite on my death bed. Yeah, it’s actually two cards, folded and tucked in the thin remains of my leather wallet. It says:
“Jesus, my friend Jesus. I know that I often called you a motherfucker and a bastard and a scoundrel and that I often sinned, oh boy I sinned. Sins, big sins, lies to my wives, deceptions to them. Thefts…it all looks so lousy when I think about it. I killed, too. How many? Don’t know. War is a blur, my boy. I take comfort that it’s not as many as most and I take comfort in the fact that many people around me at the time were saying that God was on our side and that we were only doing what God would want us to do. Truth be told, I had a boy in my division who had a machine gunned named, “Mary Magdalene”. He was a very serious religious buff, from an honest to goodness Kansas farm. We all know how religious they are out there on Kansas farms…well, you should have seen this boy with Mary Magdalene. He shot almost everybody… I was just following his Holiest of leads. Or so I thought. What can I say? I’m sorry and I wish I had it all to do all over again. Honestly, that sounds better than Heaven. Make me young again with some magic youth zap, OK? Can’t do that? How are my prospects of you taking me home. My Momma, she always said that you, Jesus, you would take me home. An Jesus, I know that I thought it was a funny in 73’ when I ripped the pages out of the Good Book and bought a bird and a bird cage just so I could have the bird shit all over the pages. Damn, that must hurt. That must be the biggest sin of all, just how premeditated it was. But Jesus, I want you to know that I’m sorry and that I accept you as my personal savior- unless you aren’t really in charge of Heaven and Christianity is all wrong. In that case, I just want to say to Buddha and Allah and Zeus and even Satan (or any other being, entity or spirit for that matter) that if they are the head honcho in charge of the afterlife, well then I feel twice as silly to have gotten fooled by the Christians and accepting Jesus on my deathbed. I always thought those Christians were full of shit. But, Jesus, since you are the popular choice, I always liked your words and I hope you will forgive what I just said. Forgive who I was. Forgive who I was not. Ok, now, I’m just gonna keep my mouth shut and die.”
I wasn’t quite out of the hospital. I was walking with my cane, spinning it, tipping my hat at everybody who passed in their wheelchairs. Boy, I tell you what, I still feel like I got a golden apple between my ribs. I still feel like I could fly a plane low over the water as it ripples and pushes away from the force of the propellers. I still feel like I could build with brick. That I could machine down metal to a specified tolerance and cut with torches and weld with flashes of faith and purpose. I could climb up ladders and look at the sleeping city from atop power plants and think about waking up every single woman, touching them in ways that they can never be touched by men who have surrendered to the dull retreats of their life and times and the certitude of their death. I still I look at people and see how they’re hurting and boy, I don’t know how it is that I’m still kicking so hard. But I am.
I walk to the little cafeteria and I buy a cup of coffee and a doughnut and I sit down, facing an indoor garden. Just as I’m about to bite into my doughnut, I hear a sweet voice. It says, “Is that how you get all of your firepower?
Doughnuts?” Allison, the nurse smiles.
“Oh came back for your hot date, huh?”
“You got it.”
She smiled and went to the counter, bought a salad and a diet Coke. She came back and sat at the table right next to mine.
I said, “Rabbit food.”
“Rabbit food. Yup.”
Then we talked for a few minutes until she had to go back out there and help people. We didn’t talk about much, but while we talked, the light in her eyes made me sure that she wasn’t talking to me, that she was talking to her Grandfather. I didn’t mind so much, but it made my ego hurt. As we parted, I put my hand on her elbow and smiled. As I touched her my shoulders widened, my hair grow back in under the cap, my face became smooth and pink, my chest filled out, the biceps in my arms became footballs, my legs- small tree trunks in my slacks. I stood three inches taller and I weighed forty pounds more. She saw me in my youth and she shuddered.
I took the bus back to 181st and went in the grocery store at the top of the hill. I bought strawberries and a head of lettuce. A New York Times, a bag of Fig Newton’s and a carton of eggs. I had him slice me a half pound of bologna.
“How’d it go with your doctor?”
“They’re gonna give me radiation. I’m just gonna save the money and hang out in front of my microwave.”
“Not the same. Don’t mess around.”
“I know, I know. Man, Jin. Sarcasm gap between the cultures. Gap between the whole cultures.”
“Don’t start that again.”
“We don’t eat dogs, you love the taste of dogs.”
“You see dog meat in this store? I outta kick your ass.”
“I may be ninety but I can still kick your ass.”
“I don’t know why I put up with you. You really are a miserable punk.”
“I’m going into the hospital on Wednesday. After that, I’ll be quieter.”
“Oh sure! You said that last time.”
He gave me the strawberries for free. I thanked him. He’s a good guy. He likes to bust balls, but so do I. No harm done. He asks me how come I don’t come to the park and play checkers anymore, I tell him that I’ve been busy writing my memoirs. He nods, tells me he wants to read it when it’s done.
Yeah. When I’m dead he can read all about how I was the one who knocked over his oranges time and time again no matter what he did to try to catch me. I smirk as I go up the stairs with my groceries. The place smells musty. I open the window, turn on the record player and sit down at the type writer.
A life goes click click click click as the type writer spells it all out beautifully.
I wake up. I walk out to the street. I knock over the oranges. They bounce and roll and tumble downwards. A car is rounding the corner below. An orange thuds against his door. Another, and another. He zooms up the hill, we make eye contact. Another displaced soul, looking for a home. I go back into my apartment. I turn the record player down. I shut off the news. I tell my cat Andrew to keep very quiet, I say, “Magic is about to happen… I can feel the time machine warming up already.”
Up above the insults and screams in Korean echo down the hill. He’s gonna catch those kids! He’s gonna skin those kids alive! When he finds those kids he’s gonna cut off all of their fingers!
Just like that, I’m back in the war, crouching in the mud, young again. When you are as old as I am, even being YOUNG on a muddy battlefield is better than being Old.
On Friday I fell. Too weak, and they took me here. Now I just lye in bed, waiting it out. Sometimes typing a little. I have my little Jesus index cards under my pillow and last night I came pretty close to reciting them out loud. I also came pretty close to tearing them up. Not yet.
Not quite yet.
I gave the rest of the memoirs to Jie, he always seemed interested. He reads too much for his own good. When I’m dead he can read the last of it, till then, the great mystery of the flipped orange stand will have to remain unsolved.
I feel good for a little while and then I feel lousy. My toes are like icicles. I wiggle them, just because I can.
The nurse comes in, a pretty young thing. Her name is Bess. She’s been dealing with me for the last few night shifts.
“Joe, how are you doing tonight?”
“Listen, I know I’m dying…”
“Joe …” she came to my side.
“I’m dying and I have a secret that I never shared with the world, can I tell you, to ease my mind?”
“It’s about the war…”
“Go on? World War II?” Korea?”
“Yes, and about my first wife Bonnie, and my second wife Mary.”
“And its about taxes and fucking and drinking and having no faith in god or the future…”
“Joe…” she put her hand on my shoulder.
Everything was so quiet. Just the sound of the machine that was beeping to let everyone know I was still alive. I opened my lips, motioned for her to come closer, I had something very important to say.
She leaned in with her ear.
I let rip a fart so serious that she left the room and didn’t come back for over an hour.