Prologue: Morning Again in America
Chuck Taylor stormed into the shop, as always, seeming about ready to implode. He had retired from something a long while before, and now spent most of his waking hours riding his bicycle around the village, stopping to gossip or to lament the changing face of the neighborhood. He had a newspaper tucked under his arm. His grey hair, cut in a bur, bristled from beneath a white fisherman’s hat which, along with the charred red of his skin, made him look like a partially reconstituted island castaway.
“So,” he growled at the shop owner. “You ready for the weekly meeting of the U. N. General Assembly, Kim?”
Paul Jeong Kim was racking cigarettes.
“Our friends will all be here,” he spoke quietly.
Friends!” Chuck Taylor bellowed. “How can you call us friends? We don’t speak the same language, or just barely. Hell, you walk down the street, it’s like everybody just came down from the Tower of Babel. Mumbo this, jumbo that. I don’t even recognize my own neighborhood anymore. Forty years in Falcon Rock, and I’m the one who feels like a foreigner! It ain’t right, Kim. I’m telling you, it ain’t right!”
A homeless man stumbled into the market. He’d made his appearance nearly daily for years, but on this Sunday morning he seemed more agitated, and more hungover, than usual.
“I can’t lend you any more this week, Tony,” Paul Kim said over his shoulder. “Not ‘til you get me that fifty from last month.”
The homeless man stood silently in front of the counter, rubbing a filthy hand across his two-day growth of stubble and his bleary red eyes. He had entered the store daubed with sweat. The August morning was already beginning to heat up.
“What did I tell you, Kim?” A man called from a table in the corner of the store, opposite the counter. Paul Kim had purchased the store from an Armenian merchant who had set up the table and chairs to allow some of the old men from St. Casimir’s church a place to play cards, drink coffee or Arak and smoke their heavy cigarettes. When Paul Kim purchased the market, he left the seating area as it was. On Sundays, it attracted a small group of old folks from the neighborhood.
The man shouting was George Nicomedes, one of the Sunday regulars. He had a shoe repair business on the boulevard, just down from Kim’s market, and spent a good deal of the day standing out front, flirting with the young ladies. To assist in those efforts, he wore a well-trimmed Van Dyke, which he considered sophisticated, but which the young ladies said made him look like an older, overweight version of the Devil.
He tugged at the brim of his black sailor’s cap.
“And then you got the smell!” Chuck Taylor went on. “You can’t go anywhere without the stink of something somebody calls food. I don’t even know what you call some of that stuff.”
“Kabob!” George Nicomedes suggested loudly. “Lamb kabob. Very delicious!”
“So what’s wrong with good old-fashioned American T-bone beefsteak?” Taylor grumbled. “Hey, Kim. Is it true your people eat dogs?”
Paul Kim turned from his work.
“Excuse me?” He nearly whispered.
“Dogs,” George Nicomedes interrupted tactfully. He pointed at the homeless man to distract his friend. “They’re like stray dogs, those homeless. Feed them once and you never get rid of them.” He waited out a long pause. “You hear me, Kim!”
“I know, I know,” Paul Kim answered. He shook his head.
“You’re going to have to shut off the tap sooner or later, Paul. Your kindness is killing you, and it doesn’t appear to be doing wonders for your homeless friend.”
That was Tessie Hill, another regular. For as long as anyone could remember, she had been the head librarian of the Falcon Rock Village branch of the Los Angeles County Library. She was a trim and energetic woman—some library patrons would say almost too energetic, especially in the recovery of overdue books and the collection of fines. Rosalva Garcia, who owned a hair and nail salon, was seated at her left. She was as large as her friend was small. She muttered in agreement.
“And what is it with these Mexicans and their beans?” Taylor continued undaunted. “And those guys walking down the sidewalk with their little boxes full of popsicles? Can’t they afford a decent truck?”
“I’ve heard this one before, Chuck. Many times.” Rosalva Garcia adjusted her blouse. “You ought to know by now that you won’t get a rise out of me.”
The merchant rested his elbows on the counter and lowered his head so that he could finger the wire rims of his eyeglasses. “What do you need this time, Tony?” He asked.
The homeless man ran his fingers through his long and sooty hair.
“I killed somebody last night,” he said slowly, as if trying to convince himself.
“I think maybe you’ve just had too much to drink, Tony,” Paul Kim said. “Why don’t you go to the park and sleep it off?”
“Muy loco,” Rosalva Garcia said.
“No crazier than the rest of us,” Chuck Taylor snarled. “At least he isn’t pretending to be your friend.”
The woman flattened the dark skirt across her sturdy lap. “Who’s going for coffee and pastries?”
“Man, listen,” the homeless fellow insisted, his hands folded in front of him in a crude form of prayer. “You know that guy you always see by the river, walking up and down like he’s got a steel rod up his back or something?”
Everyone had seen the man. He was easily the strangest among the strange men who lived in the bushes along the banks of the L.A. River. He walked, strutted really, along the top of the river bank almost every evening, a grey figure against the silver light of dusk. He never spoke. Neither did he beg. Rather, he scrounged for castoff food in the trash cans behind the restaurants on the boulevard, which he walked by day, appearing as far west as Hollywood, and north all the way to Glendale. His long hair flew in every direction, and the skin of his arms and face had darkened so from relentless exposure to the Southwest sun that it was impossible to tell his ethnicity or estimate his age. He was a kind of homeless everyman, a universal lunatic. He frightened people.
“Well,” Tony said. “I killed him last night.”
“Damnit, Tony,” Chuck Taylor called over. “I’ve known you for two years. You may be a drunk, but you’re not a murderer. Why do you have to come in here on a Sunday morning and level a load of bull like that?”
“I’m telling you, I killed him. We had a fight. Down by the river. I found this chicken, a big fat one. Alive. So I was taking it back to the place to, well, you know, get a barbecue going, and then this psycho comes running over trying to pull the damned bird out of my hands. So I hit him and he hit me and then things got carried away. And then I took out my knife and I killed him.”
“Where’s the chicken?” George Nicomedes asked mockingly.
“How should I know?” Tony growled. “I’m telling you, I was too busy killing the guy to pay attention to where the damned chicken went.”
Sidney Liao entered, still dressed from the church service he lead every Sunday. His long face possessed, as always, a Puritanical stiffness accentuated by the oiled and perfectly parted hair. Behind him, considerably more jovial, was Johnny Umemoto, the village pharmacist. A thick helmet of silver-white hair sat atop his round, dark face.
“My friends, you’ve arrived just in time,” Tessie Hill spoke as they entered. “This gentleman here either needs somebody to pray for his immortal soul, or else someone to prescribe something for the treatment of hallucinations.”
Muted laughter sounded all around. Even Chuck Taylor laughed—momentarily.
The homeless man flushed red with anger.
“I’ll be back, man,” he said to the merchant. “I’ll be back. You’ll eat your words. Don’t nobody call Tony Duff a liar!”
“Well,” the merchant said, watching the homeless man rush out the door. “At least he forgot about the twenty.”
“Who’s going out for coffee and pastries?” Rosalva Garcia repeated.
“I did last week, and I never got my money back,” Chuck Taylor grumbled. “Not that I’d expected to.”
“I’m quite sure you were reimbursed,” Tessie Hill corrected him. “Because I remember taking up the collection.”
“That was two weeks ago,” Sidney Liao corrected them both. “I distinctly recall having gone for the group last week.”
“I don’t care who goes.” Rosalva Garcia crowed. “I just want my coffee and pastries.”
A squabble broke out among the regulars.
“There you go!” Chuck Taylor trumpeted. “There you go! We’re never gonna get along in this town! We can’t even agree on a couple dollars’ worth of goddamned pastries, for Christ’s sake!”
“Please be quiet, Chuck,” Tessie Hill admonished.
“All I’m saying, Tessie, is that we’ll never get along—the races, that is. I don’t even know why we try. Koreans and Japanese hate each other. Blacks and Whites hate each other. Even the goddamned Mexicans and Salvadorans hate each other, and who the hell can tell the difference?”
He was hushed by Rosalva Garcia.
Barely tempered, he went on. “I mean, just look at us. We’re supposed to be friends, but the only things we’ve got in common are the wrinkles in our old faces and our tired old stories that nobody wants to hear anymore.”
“I would suggest, Chuck,” Tessie Hill said, “that you underestimate the power of the story....The power to humanize and harmonize, to elucidate and illuminate...”
“You talk like a librarian, all right,” Taylor said. “But it’s still a bunch of bull—”
He broke off mid-word as the homeless man plunged through the door, holding a black plastic bag at arms length in front of him.
“You want proof? OK, see for yourself!” He shouted with a slurring theatricality.
Then he pulled a severed head from the sack, held it by the hair and waved it about in triumph.
“Don’t nobody call Tony Duff a liar!”
“Oh, my,” Tessie Hill gasped.
Rosalva Garcia put her face in her hands on the table and promptly passed out.
The remainder of the group was too stunned to speak.
“Try to swipe my chicken dinner, will you?” The man said to the head.
He put the head down on the counter in front of Paul Kim.
“Can I borrow that twenty, just til the first?” The homeless man asked. Without a word, Paul Kim opened the cash register and handed over a bill.
“Maybe a pack of Marlboro’s?”
The merchant gave him the cigarettes.
”Thanks, man. You know I’m good for it.”
The homeless man walked from the store, leaving the head behind on the counter.
For a long time, the group sat in silence, which George Nicomedes finally broke.
“What do you think we ought to do?” He asked.
“Call the police,” Johnny Umemoto said. “Call 911.”
Paul Kim made the call to the LAPD, speaking with his back to the group. He turned from the phone with a confused look on his face.
“They said they’ll get to it when they can,” he said. “They told me to keep it on ice until they get here.”
Now, the only cool place that was not already full of merchandise was the meat case. Paul Kim, lifting the head by the hair, carried it to the far side of the market. He placed it in an empty pan that had the day before held a large quantity of ground round. He took a mop from behind the counter and began cleaning up the trail of blood.
“I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait,” the merchant said, sitting down at the table before the unconscious form of Rosalva Garcia.
None of the group, all eyes upon Paul Kim as he mopped, had noticed the petite woman enter the store. She had white hair pulled behind in a stern bun. She had taken a red plastic hand basket and was filling it from the shelves.
Paul Kim rose and went to the front counter. The woman was unloading her groceries onto the conveyor belt.
“Good Morning, Mrs. Tran,” the merchant said, as nonchalantly as possible.
The woman nodded, then tapped her forehead, signaling she’d forgotten something. She turned and started toward the meat case.
“Mrs. Tran!” Paul Kim called after her.
It was too late. Within moments, shrieking at the top of her lungs, the old woman was rushing out the door and into the brilliant sunlight, having left all her groceries behind on the counter, except for—of all things—a single deep blue canister of Morton Salt.
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