Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

The day before I started my school suspension — more about that later — we learned of my father’s decision to quit his current job. The two had some things in common, and I thought it an interesting coincidence: No school for me, no work for him. A lecture for me from my mom, and a lecture from my mom for him. No big surprise for either. I was like the king of unapproved stunts at school, and he was famous for changing jobs.

My dad always said that when he had $500,000 in the bank, he’d quit his job, move to Mexico — with or without my mom — her choice, buy a camper, and spend the rest of his life fishing. He said this often; it was his mantra.

This announcement of quitting his job, however, did not coincide with his achieving that monetary goal. In fact he was not even close. He never was. But the new year was upon us, and he needed a change from chasing down clients to cold sell them life insurance. True, he’d written some million dollar policies for strangers in his time with Metropolitan, but even though that meant seatings at the million-dollar roundtable, a gesture of recognition at the annual national conference, he was not satisfied. His goal was always job satisfaction which he’d not achieved, plus the $500,000.

“But what will you do this time?” my mother asked him after she’d finger-wagged him for even having the thought of changing jobs again. This part of the lecture surprised us kids, because she knew that he never had a plan for the next job; he just rolled the dice. Koreans gamble in their sleep; they’re naturals. In some ways this Korean was blessed with a certain kind of luck, too. He always seemed to land on his feet somehow.

Luck. That was, he said, in fact his middle name. And he seemed to live up to that claim. For instance, if it weren’t for need of a drink of water, he’d have been killed in Sicily. He’d left the bunker to run to the nearest water pump. Just as he reached it, a artillery round had landed square on the bunker and killed everyone in it. That’s the kind of luck he had. Or when he attended the University of Wisconsin after the war, he met a woman in the campus center bar, telling her to stand up, and if she weren’t taller than he, he’d take her to the movies. This was dangerous for an Asian to say to a white woman in those days, even if he were a heavily decorated veteran who’d given up four years of his life to serve his country. Being shot and hit with a huge piece of shrapnel didn’t count for beans either. Racial prejudice ran high in the good old Midwest. Every Asian was a Jap. He told me more than once that he got in more hand-to-hand combat at UW Madison than he ever got into in the war. But he won every fight. Or so he said.

As it turned out my future mother was an inch taller than my future father, but they ended up together anyway. My mom always said, “He was the most handsome man I had ever met.” I’ve seen the pictures of them back then. A stunning couple to be sure. I hear from his brothers and sisters that he was quite the Casanova in his high school days. He had his pick, and it sounds like the babes were lined up for the picking.

Yes, that’s right, he was lucky and handsome. But I don’t think the handsome part ever landed him a job. Just my mom.

So now. again, my dad would probably look to his relatives and friends for job suggestions. My Uncle Ben once said there was a slot for a Meadow Gold driver, delivering milk and ice cream to the various stores around the island. This hardly made my dad’s day. He did like the idea of working with his brother and, because of the union the pay was excellent. But, he said, he had no desire to drive large trucks. My dad was always more of a four-on-the-floor kind of driver. Everything he bought was pretty sporty.

* * * * *

He once had a ’64 Chevy Impala, black with a leather interior, that people stole every other month, it seemed. It would always be found in perfect condition. The police said the thieves were just doing it to joyride. My dad kept parking the car closer and closer to our front door, hoping that proximity would discourage these Impala admirers. It never worked that way.

One day I was very sick at school. This was actually something I looked forward to sometimes. It meant a few days off from school. My dad picked me up in his baby. The rain poured down relentlessly that day, making seeing out the car windows difficult.

“Wipe down your side.” With tissue, we both attempted to clear the window of as much of the blinding, distorting fog. Our tissues turned soggy, then broke apart. I sneezed. My dad threw me a questioning glance. “You’re really sick?” I nodded.

He reached in back and pulled two more tissues from the box. “Blow your nose,” he ordered. We turned right at the bottom of Pacific Heights Road and began the upward churn. I could feel the car swerving against all the water rushing downhill. I couldn’t remember weather like this.

We had struggled to two houses past Alika Leong’s house when the engine died. The water ran so high that it must have jammed up something under the hood. After a dozen attempts at restarting the car, my dad finally yanked the keys from the ignition, sighed hoarsely, and slumped back against the seat. When he opened his eyes, he rubbed them slowly, then said, “I’m going to roll back down into the Leong’s driveway, turn around, and roll forward so I can park on the shoulder.”

My dad stuck his head out into the downpour and proceeded to do exactly as he had proposed. Parked safely on the side of the road, just past Alika’s garage, my dad rolled up his window. He sat exhaling slowly.

By now the windows were a solid gray white. At the moment my dad swung his door open, I heard a terrifying crash. I turned to look at the back of my dad’s soaking head. He held the handlebar of a crinkled bicycle

My dad jumped from the car and ran toward the front. I slid out into the street too. My dad crouched over a body. I went to his side. Alika lay there. “Get the bike,” my dad ordered. He hoisted Alika and carried him into his garage. Alika’s face was a bloody mess. When he came to and mumbled to my father that he thought he was all right, I noticed some of his teeth were missing.

My dad explained to Alika’s mother that her son had been bicycling full speed down the road when my dad opened the door. Alika had barreled right into the door as my father swung it. “It’s lucky,” my dad observed, “that your son didn’t go through the glass.”

“You know,” my dad commented as we toweled off side by side at home, “I might have trouble proving it in court, but Alika and his friends are the ones who steal my car.”

I sneezed and nodded. I knew that Alika was a suspicious character. He’d taught me how to smoke. And he had taught me how using Pall Malls he’d stolen from my dad’s car.

* * * * *

My Uncle Stu once suggested my dad apply for a job with one of the airlines. “Hank, they are looking to hire veterans all the time,” he said. My dad thought about this, and he liked the idea that he and the rest of us could fly anywhere for next to nothing, but when he looked into the positions available, the only ones he could find were in customer service. This was a little too people-ly for him; he’d had it with people-oriented jobs thanks to the nature of selling insurance. You wouldn’t believe how many people he had had to kowtow to before he hit with one of those million dollar policies. He was also a very proud man.

So here he was, suddenly between jobs, and my mother the intermediate high school teacher would have to be the bread winner. Again. For this Korean, the dice were rolling.

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