Lou Mathews is the author of L.A. Breakdown.
Lou Mathews, L.A. Breakdown
© Malvern

L.A. Breakdown, about illegal street racing, was picked by the Los Angeles Times as a Best Book of 1999.

Mathews has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, a California Arts Council Fiction Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Katherine Anne Porter Prize. He has published recent work in New Madrid, Short Story, Harpur Palate, and the last three issues of Black Clock. His short story, “The Moon Reaches Down for Me Like the Fist in a Siquieros Painting” is forthcoming in Black Clock #13—The Mix Tape, containing 24 stories from the first 12 issues of the magazine. His short stories have been anthologized in Valley Light, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Love Stories for the Rest of Us, L.A. Shorts, Portales, and The Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery. His non-fiction has been published in the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Reader, L.A. Weekly, Mother Jones, Tin House, and L.A. Style, where he was a contributing editor for eight years and a restaurant reviewer for forty-three pounds. He has taught fiction writing and literature in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program since 1989.

Want to know more about Lou and his work? Click here.

We published Mathews’s story “Huevos” in Issue 29.

The Garlic Eater

posted Jan 9, 2006

Mr. Kim squatted in the shadowed storage room of his market, Lupé's Groceries, contemplating his new gun. Beneath the single overhead lamp, the gun lay on a green felt cloth in a pool of light. It was a nickel­plated .38 caliber Smith & Wesson, a snub-nosed revolver, gleaming from its light coat of oil: truncated, obscenely bulky beside Mr. Kim's slim fingers, blue-black against his ivory colored skin.

This gun, like much in Mr. Kim's present life, was a compromise. He had wanted a Luger. The Luger fit his hand and reminded him of the spy movies of his boyhood but the salesman at Big Red's Gun Shop in Highland Park would not allow him to buy it. This salesman, a large, florid man with cotton white hair, who turned out to be Big Red, asked Mr. Kim's reasons for buying a gun and then explained why the Luger was not the gun for him.

"Look, Pal," Big Red took the Luger from Mr. Kim's fingers and put it on the glass counter. "Do you want to kill someone?"

Mr. Kim looked at the Luger and at the salesman. His English was not good. He didn't clearly understand the question or what the desired answer might be.

Big Red answered for him, "Of course you don't want to kill someone. What you want is a deterrent. You buy that Luger, pal, you'll have to use it."

Mr. Kim stared fixedly at the Luger so Big Red continued. "Let me make sure I got my facts straight. You got a grocery store, right? In a bad neighborhood, right?" Mr. Kim nodded yes to the first question and felt he should discuss the second, but the man was still talking. "So who you dealing with there?" Again, he answered his own question: "You got crackheads, right? You got street gorillas, crazies, glue-sniffers, red freaks, junkies. You got kids right?" He pointed to the Luger. "Pal, those kids don't even know what that is. They think it's a squirt gun. You buy it, you'll use it."

Big Red lifted the .38 from the glass display case and placed it reverently beside the Luger. "Now this," he said. "They know what this is."

Mr. Kim listened to the voice of his daughter. She was calling the prices as she rang up a customer's purchases. The cash drawer opened and closed with the ting of a bell and then the door warning buzzed as the customer left the store.

He flicked the gun and the fluted cylinder swung out. Mr. Kim rotated the cylinder. He sighted through each empty chamber at the overhead lamp. Each bore was clean, flawlessly machined and honed. The cylinder rotated easily, with precise clicks at each stop. Mr. Kim loaded each chamber with a cartridge from the box before him. The bullets were a gift from Big Red—hand loaded, brass shells with round-nosed copper-jacketed slugs—"Your basic stopper," he'd called them. Mr. Kim matched the cylinder to the frame with a firm click and held the gun up under the light, admiring the checkered walnut grips and the golden inset buttons with the interwoven S&W. It was, as Big Red had said, American craftsmanship at its finest.

Mr. Kim felt his daughter's eyes upon him. She spoke to him in Korean, "Where will you keep it?" It was respect on her part, her English was excellent. He answered in English, "Build shelf," then corrected himself, "I will build shelf. Under the cash register."

"It scares me," she said. "Do we have to have it?"

Mr. Kim spoke in Korean, the emotion was too strong for his English. "What else can I do, Lily? They beat your mother. They beat her like a dog."

Mr. Kim built the shelf but did not use it. That first day, while he was planning the shelf, he carried the gun with him in his jacket and became used to its bulk and comfort.

When he took out the trash in the late afternoon, he surprised two junkies in his alley. With his elbow secretly pressed against the gun in his jacket pocket, he advanced to where they crouched, studying an unfolded paper packet. Mr. Kim slammed the trash can down and they broke for the mouth of the alley before they realized who it was. Some of the powder in the packet spilled.

Enraged, they turned back, and Mr. Kim screamed at them, "Police here soon!" They looked at him, in their calculating junkie way, and decided something had changed. The larger of the two went back to the spilled powder, blew it together and scraped it up with a matchbook. When he had funneled it back into the packet, he stood and pointed at Mr. Kim. "Your ass! Buckwheat!"

Mr. Kim's hand was still outside his jacket but he clutched the gun and stood his ground, waiting until they crossed the street to the empty lot where the junkies hung out.

For Mr. Kim it was a moment, the first time since he'd leased the grocery that he had gained respect. Standing there in the alley he dedicated the moment to his wife. Sun May had been in the hospital now a week. They had wired her broken jaw, bound her bruised ribs. Her soul would take longer to heal. She still refused to look at Mr. Kim, when he came for his nightly visit.

Awake and dreaming, Mr. Kim was visited by the memory. He had been in the storeroom. It was only the buzzer, going on and on, that had drawn him to the front. He heard the buzzer before Sun May's screams. A skinny Mexican man wearing a hooded sweatshirt was trapped in the doorway. He had a packaged pound cake under his left arm and a quart bottle of Night Train in that hand. Sun May was clutching his knees. Her head was down, pressed against the man's thighs and she screamed each time his fist smashed against her head or bent neck but she wouldn't let go.

The man dropped the pound cake as he shifted the wine bottle to his right hand. He beat her with the heavy bottle until she slid down his legs. Her face turned upward as her grip loosened and it was then that her jaw was broken; the bottle smashed against her jawbone with a crack and the orange wine shot into the air as she was driven to the floor.

The Mexican stepped out of the loose circle of her arms and kicked her in the ribs. Mr. Kim, who had frozen in the storeroom doorway a few seconds, charged out shouting. The man held the broken bottle out in front of him slashing the air, and backed out the door.

Mr. Kim could never recall the face. There were the jagged teeth of the bottle, the glassy chemical eyes shrouded by the hood of the sweatshirt, and then the man turned and ran off down the street, veed elbows pumping, the soles of his shoes flashing. The buzzer droned on and on until Mr. Kim could drag his wife clear of the doorway and the door clicked shut.

Mr. Kim peered through the door blinds. The two junkies he'd chased out of his alley were telling their story across the street, to the other junkies.

The tall one sat on one sofa, talking to the others lounging around him on the broken up sofas and old armchairs the junkies had hauled to the vacant lot; he was describing with elaborate, accusatory jabs of his forefinger what Mr. Kim had done to him in the alley and—Mr. Kim supposed—what he was going to do to Mr. Kim. The smaller junkie stood behind him, violently nodding his head in outraged agreement; up and down, so strongly sometimes that his eyes closed. "Yeah," Mr. Kim heard him yell. "Yeah. That's right, Bro."

The indignation of the junkies, even when they were caught stealing, always surprised Mr. Kim. "So What?" they told him. "Fuck you," they told him. "You're ripping off the people, man." What was just as surprising was that the anger did not last. In an hour that same man out there yelling might be in his store, to buy wine or steal candy.

The discussion across the street had ended. One of the junkies, the black one that Mr. Kim thought of as the educated junkie, had a liter bottle of Coca Cola; it was not clear who it belonged to. He was holding the plastic bottle over the head and upstretched arms of the small junkie, teasing him. The rest were yelling, pointing, taking sides. Someone pushed the educated junkie over the back of a sofa. As he toppled he tossed the bottle to a friend and the game continued. Except that they were so lazy, the group reminded Mr. Kim of the tame flocks of ducks and cormorants, the long-necked fishing birds of his native coast. It was the same noise, the same squabbling and posturing, the rapid ritual displays of defiance and submission.

Even if he no longer feared the junkies, Mr. Kim still hated them. It was the lack of respect he felt from them. They had been the first to withhold respect, and all the other had followed.

When he had first taken over the store, the junkies had swarmed the place. Anxious to please, reluctant to offend new neighbors, Mr. Kim waited on them patiently, politely deflecting their requests for credit, keeping silent when they tried to haggle over prices.

That first week had been endless and disheartening. The junkies wandered the store, talking to each other in Spanish, he and Sun May behind the counter argued in Korean; both sides switched to English to conduct transactions. He remembered the tall junkie holding up a bottle of Thunderbird, saying, "I'll give you a dollar for this. One dollar," while Sun May, nearly in tears, pointed at the price tag and repeated, "Two dollar. Eighty-six cent." The junkie kept yelling, as though they couldn't comprehend, "I'll give you a dollar for this wine. One dollar. It ain't even cold."

Mr. Kim's anger flared when he finally understood they were stealing from him. By the end of the first week they were stealing openly. He told Sun May, "They think we're stupid people. Ignorant." He threw them out; they returned. Finally, he refused to let in more than one of them at a time.

The educated junkie appeared the second week. He was a very black man, tall and slim with a jutting beard and Mr. Kim had not realized he was one of the junkies. He was well dressed for the neighborhood, in a blue terrycloth jumpsuit and expensive running shoes. He spoke excellent, musical English and as he talked his long fingers fluttered and pointed gracefully. In a cultured manner, Mr. Kim had thought then, like the hand movements in Tai Chi. Alfonso, the man's name was Alfonso, Mr. Kim remembered. He was not a negro, he came from some country below Mexico—Mr. Kim could not remember which—and he had spent time in Okinawa.

Mr. Kim had been alone in the store that morning when the man came to the counter for the first time. He pointed behind Mr. Kim to a small pyramid of jars. "I see," the man said, "you have some Kim Chee back there." Mr. Kim looked at the jars of pickled cabbage; the bok choy and garlic and peppers floated in bright red juice. "Yes," Mr. Kim said. "Yes! Kim Chee. You know Kim Chee?"

"Sure," the man said, "I had it all the time in Okinawa. Tasty stuff. Very tasty."

The shelves behind Mr. Kim were a display of Korean goods. Two Korean flags, white silk with the Taoist symbol in the center, the red/black, yin/yang circle surrounded by the four hexagrams, flanked the jars of Kim Chee; there were pyramids of garlic sauce, tiger wine and ginseng, dry and floating in bottles. It looked like a shrine. Sun May thought it was foolish to put the only goods their customers wouldn't steal behind the counter but Mr. Kim liked the display.

This man was the first to notice any of the Korean products. "Is that Kim Chee spicy?" he asked Mr. Kim. "I like it hot." Mr. Kim handed him one of the jars and said, "Spicy. Yes. Very spicy." After looking over the relish, the man asked about everything else on the shelves. Ginseng he knew about. He had never seen tiger's wine before. Mr. Kim held the bottle up and swirled it so that the fine white powder in the bottom—the ground tiger bone—floated up into the clear rice wine like dust in a sunbeam. The tiger's bones were to make one brave. Mr. Kim told the man about tigers: their courage, their intelligence, how sensitive and easily insulted they were, which was why it was necessary to apologize to the tiger before drinking his bones.

It was while he was talking about tigers, Mr. Kim realized afterward, that the other two junkies came in the store. He knew the door buzzer must have sounded but he couldn't remember hearing it. He had been talking happily about tigers and Korea, about the Chinese man in Seoul who had bought and eaten a whole tiger to become fierce, when the junkies had rushed out the door, bent over and bulky from the cans and bottles and packages they had stolen from Mr. Kim's shelves. They ran off up the street, laughing wildly, and Mr. Kim understood. That man had stood at his counter, hands fluttering and pointing, his voice had gotten louder; it was all to screen the stealing.

Alfonso was holding the tiger wine to the light now, jiggling it. "This stuff," he was saying, "is like the worm in the mescal bottle. You know about mescal?" he asked Mr. Kim. "Mescal makes you brave because it makes you crazy."

Mr. Kim looked at him sadly and took the bottle back. "Go with your friends," Mr. Kim told him.

The black junkie looked him over. The smile was gone; the contempt that had been behind the smile showed plainly. The man reacted as though he'd been insulted. He picked up the jar of Kim Chee and opened it. The pungent odor filled the store. He held the jar up to his nose and jerked his head away with a look of disgust. "Whoo," he said. "What you trying to sell me. This is junk Kim Chee, hombre. Number ten. You understand what I'm telling you? Number ten." The man put the open jar down on the counter and walked out. Mr. Kim never protested. He felt deeply shamed; the words wounded him more because the man was not ignorant.

When Alfonso came into the store after that he was always insulting. One lunchtime, when Sun May was making noodles in the back, the man walked in, sniffed and said loudly, "Garlic heads! Fish head stew with garlic. That's what you like, right? That's the trouble with Korea. Too much garlic. The Japanese knew, didn't they? They never say Koreans, do they? They call you Garlic Eaters." He called Mr. Kim, Garlic Head, he called Sun May, Garlica, and Lily, Garlic Girl.

The disrespect of the junkies had led, Mr. Kim felt, to the disrespect of the others. The children stole; the parents complained of his prices. He took down the flags, put the tiger's wine, Kim Chee, ginseng and garlic sauce in the storeroom. He called the painter and canceled his order; the sign would stay the same. Lupé's Groceries, not Kim's Store.

*

In the evening, when Mr. Kim took the trash out again, he looked across the street at the junkies, sitting on their sofas before a small fire. None of them had returned to his alley that day. The ones that had come in the store had been wary. Mr. Kim lifted the trash can overhead and shook the trash into the dumpster. As he lifted the can, the gun bumped against his ribs. He thought again, as he had each time the gun touched his side or he felt its bulk through the cloth, perhaps things could change.

*

Mr. Kim was arranging cut flowers in the front window when he saw Mrs. Espinosa coming down the hill on her canes. If he had made a friend in the neighborhood it was the widow Espinosa and it was because of the flowers.

From the day he'd taken over the store, he had stocked the front window with cut flowers: carnations, daisies, mums, gladiolas. The hardier flowers, those that could survive without refrigeration.

Mr. Kim sold them for only a little more than his cost. He enjoyed his early morning stop at the wholesale flower market, and the flowers there were cheap, particularly because he was willing to take short lots and culls. The flowers were the one thing in his present life that reminded him of home. His mother had been a wonderful gardener and also taught flower arranging. No civic function or temple ceremony in their village was complete without one of his mother's spare, artful arrangements. Mr. Kim had her skill in his hands, but his gardening was confined to window boxes and planter boxes in front of the store.

Mrs. Espinosa was also a gardener but arthritis and an increasingly bad back limited the range of her garden. Mr. Kim had been to see it. She had banks of calendulas, poppies and gazanias, and geraniums in pots. The rest of the plot was in vegetables: fava beans, chayote and summer squash, tomatoes, peppers and a fine stand of corn with two marijuana plants hidden in the middle of the second row. Mrs. Espinosa was not at all embarrassed by these plants. She had lived more than half her life in Mexico; her mother and her grandmother had both brewed marijuana as a tea. Now that she had arthritis she brewed her own, marijuana and yerba buena, and the tea helped with the pain. The cornstalks were to hide the plants from the kids in the neighborhood, not the police.

Mrs. Espinosa made a daily trip to the grocery for her small needs, mainly cat food, milk and something sweet for her dessert, and then she would pick out her flowers. Mr. Kim made an arrangement for her and kept them aside; she would add to it from other bouquets.

Occasionally she brought seedlings to him. The blowsy purple cosmos in the semi-shaded box were hers, so were the trim vinca plants in the sun. She had brought a potted geranium for Sun May when they took her to the hospital and also a small bag of marijuana, which she tried to make Mr. Kim take to her. He knew it probably was a better pain killer, as Mrs. Espinosa said, than anything the hospital could provide, but the idea of carrying it terrified him.

Mr. Kim opened the door and held it open as Mrs. Espinosa approached; the droning buzzer made him think of Sun May. Mrs. Espinosa shuffled forward, a walnut colored, bent old woman, wearing her unvarying black dress and black mantilla and the Esprít shopping bag on her arm. Once inside, he guided her to a chair near the counter, sat her down and waited for her to regain her breath.

"Something special today," Mr. Kim said. He brought out two pots and put them on the counter. "One for Sun May, one for you." Both plants were in vigorous bloom with orange trumpet- shaped flowers, freckled with black spots, as delicate as the first speckles on a banana.

Mrs. Espinosa reached to touch a petal. "Ahh," she said. "Lirio. Azucena."

"Tiger Lily," Mr. Kim said. "Na-ri. First grown in Korea. There is a story." Mr. Kim couldn't say that Mrs. Espinosa always understood what he said, but she always listened. Her sturdy fingers tested the lily's stalk, then rubbed a glossy leaf.

"In Korea," Mr. Kim said, "old days, a hermit pulled an arrow from a tiger's paw and they became friends. When tiger die he ask the hermit for magic, to keep him around, so his body become the tiger lily. When hermit die, drowned you know, tiger lily looks for him everywhere, spreads all over the world."

"How much?" Mrs. Espinosa said. She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together.

"De nada," Mr. Kim said; it was the only Spanish besides "Migra", the neighborhood term for the Immigration Service, that he could pronounce. "A present." She nodded.

"One other thing," Mr. Kim said. "Very special." He went to the window and returned, holding a long stemmed pink carnation. He held it up for her to see. "One stalk," he said. "Three flowers." The long stem had a flower on top and two below, all equal and perfectly formed. "In Korea," Mr. Kim said, "they use flowers like these for..." He couldn't think of the English. In Korean it was ye-on—divination. "For fortune telling." It was a close as he could come.

"You tie in your hair. If the bottom flower dries first, misfortune in youth. Middle flower, middle life. If the top flower dries first, old age will be difficult. My mother showed me this when I was a boy."

"What if they all dry at once?" Mrs. Espinosa asked.

"Ahh," Mr. Kim said. "Sad life."

He handed the flower to Mrs. Espinosa. She turned it, looking at each pink fluffy bloom and then set it firmly on the counter. "No," she said. "No mas. You keep it. At my age, I don't want to know."

*

In the afternoon, while Lily was still in school, an emissary came from his wife's family, her uncle, Joong Sook. Joong knocked on the front door of the store, as though it were a house, and waited for Mr. Kim to open it. Years before, in Seoul, when Mr. Kim could no longer endure Sun May's family walking into his house unannounced, he had finally asked that they telephone first, or at least knock. Since then, with ostentatious civility, her family knocked—all but her mother, who refused to knock but would not enter without an invitation. Once she had stood in their screen porch for several hours, until Lily had noticed she was there—the rest of Sun May's family now knocked, and they also told anyone who listened that they were not welcome.

Mr. Kim opened the door. Joong was an officious, energetic man of fifty—bald, moon-faced, muscular in his tee shirt and painter's pants. He wasted no time. "Sun May has left the hospital," he told Mr. Kim. "She wanted to go home."

Home, Mr. Kim understood, meant Korea. Seoul, where most of her family still lived.

"Where is she?" Mr. Kim asked.

Joong let his triumph show. "On the plane," he said. "Home tomorrow."

Mr. Kim knew it was true and he found he was not surprised. Sun May had hated Los Angeles, the heat and the coarseness of their neighbors. She had refused to look at him since the beating. He'd thought at first it was because she was ashamed of her swollen face, wired mouth and bruises. It wasn't that. She didn't want to look at him, not the other way round. Her family, of course, would be glad to help her in her flight. Joong was waiting for some response from him. Nearly anything, Mr. Kim knew, would add to Joong's satisfaction.

He thought suddenly of Lily. He wondered if she had known, if she had talked with her mother. Mr. Kim thought back. All that week he had looked up to find Lily watching him; when she was caught, her head would drop. Like her mother, she did not want him to see what was in her eyes. He understood then that mother and daughter had talked, and Lily had made her choice. She'd chosen to stay, which meant she could not tell her mother's secret. She could only watch him, knowing the pain and shame he would soon feel. His heart went out to her.

Joong was still waiting. When it was clear Mr. Kim would stay silent, Joong spoke. "Here!" he said. His hand thrust in the general direction of the neighborhood and then more specifically, pointing at the counters and shelves of the small store. "She did not feel you could protect her here," Joong said.

Mr. Kim considered telling Joong about his gun, about the difference it had already made. He stood with his hand in his jacket pocket, his thumb rubbing the barrel, and knew it would make no difference to Joong. It would only provide delicious gossip at the next family gathering.

Nothing could change the way they thought of him: the weakling. The reserved and accepting Buddhist in that family of bustling Methodists.

Again, Joong waited. Mr. Kim did not speak. Joong left, pulling the door shut behind him with a bang.

*

It was late afternoon. Lily was not back from school but she would be soon and Mr. Kim still could not decide what to say to her.

After Joong had left, Mr. Kim had locked the door and ignored the customers who had banged on it, while he tried to think. He could not think.

Now Alfonso, that black junkie, the educated junkie, was out there, banging on the glass, rattling the blinds, and it seemed pointless not to let him in. He could at least be making money; Sun May's family would approve.

Mr. Kim slipped the lock and Alfonso reeled into the store. The man was high, or drunk, or both. "Mr. Garlic Head," Alfonso said. "A little wine. I need a little wine to keep it going." Mr. Kim said nothing, only watched him go to the cooler and pull out a bottle of Night Train. He turned with the bottle in his fist and scanned Mr. Kim, in that calculating junkie way, and Mr. Kim could see what registered in his eyes: that something had gone wrong in the garlic eater's life. Something might be to his advantage.

Alfonso walked toward the door, waving a hand gracefully. "Pay you Tuesday." Mr. Kim fired through the cloth of his jacket, without aiming. The roar of the gun was staggering in the small space—Tiger, Mr. Kim thought, Tiger—and the man dropped to the floor.

A mistake, Mr. Kim thought. My finger was on the trigger. I shot without thinking, without aiming. No, he decided, not true. I was not thinking but it was exactly what I meant to do.

Mr. Kim walked over and looked down at the man. The bullet had passed through his side, just above the waist. Alfonso lay there, his teeth bared in silent agony, his body bent in an S: the curve of pain in a fish, bending on itself as the hook is pulled from its mouth; the sine curve dividing the yin from the yang. Mr. Kim stepped over him and locked the door.

On the way back, the man reached for Mr. Kim. His arm stretched out and his fingers touched Mr. Kim's ankle. Mr. Kim stopped. Alfonso hissed through a rictus of pain, "No Migra. Por favor. No Migra." Mr. Kim looked down at the pleading fingers that touched but dared not curl around his ankle. He came to.

"No Migra," Mr. Kim said.

Mr. Kim bent down and lifted Alfonso's pink sweatshirt. The bullet had passed through cleanly. Behind the counter he found Sun May's white grocer's smock. He tore the cloth, folded it and slipped it under Alfonso. From his small shelf of medical supplies Mr. Kim opened packets of gauze and cotton batting, doused them with methiloate and pressed them in around the wound, wincing as Alfonso winced, then tied the smock loosely to hold the compress in place.

He thumbed the cap from an aspirin bottle and poured the pills into his palm. He pressed two between Alfonso's lips, followed his eyes and gave him the rest of the handful. He thought about water to wash them down but again Alfonso's eyes caught him. They were shifting toward the bottle of wine that had rolled to a stop beside them. Mr. Kim found a styrofoam cup, poured a half-cup of the orange wine and held it to the man's mouth. He sipped, swallowed, then shifted a little to take some more. Mr. Kim poured another half-cup and stood up. The glaze of pain was receding from Alfonso's eyes. Alfonso reached for the cup.

Mr. Kim sat down behind his counter. Soon he would call the ambulance, now he was waiting for Lily's face at the window.

The carnation, with its three freak blooms, was before him. He had been ten when his mother had put the carnation in his hair, plaiting the locks around it. The top blossom had dried first and his mother had been pleased. "First flower," she'd said. "Only the last years of one's life will be difficult." He had not thought they would come so soon.