Image from a Stolen Camera

Heinz Insu Fenkl

 

The picture is faded, overexposed and poorly fixed, its blacks washed out around the edges, the bright summer light hanging in the air like a luminous white fog. It is a group shot, tightly arranged: here is a blond GI who can't be more than eighteen; he still has a boy's smile, and the telling sword-emblem patch is absent from his left shoulder. He has not yet been to Vietnam, because if he had been, he would be wearing that campaign patch with a patriotic pride or a disillusioned resentment; he would have lost the quickness of his smile, and his eyes would have been empty with that prematurely ancient look they call “the thousand yard stare.” His name patch says, “McConnell” and he is crouching in front of a concrete bridge railing, holding a small, dark-skinned Korean boy in each arm as if they were bundles of wildflowers. Two other boys are standing behind him, only their dark, smiling faces and grimy necks visible, their shoulders bleached into the air because they are wearing white T-shirts. Standing in front of the GI are two boys who have their heads turned towards the camera, but their eyes are watching him. The boy on the left looks like he might be the GI's cousin—his hair is dirty blond and he grins with the same crooked teeth—but the subtle angles of his face mark him as an Amerasian. The other boy is also Amerasian, black-haired and darker skinned, but not as dark as the Koreans. He is a few years younger than the blond boy, and his hesitant smile looks worried. I know why he is worried. He is thinking of the two other figures who are visible in the distant background in the shadow of a tin-roofed shack. The figures are only unfocused specks in the photograph, but I know that they are two teenagers waiting for the action to begin. I know, because the boy with the worried smile is me.

 


 

For most of the week, we had wondered how to get money to buy medicine for Kisu's foot. Kisu had been burned by oil dripping from a passing train the day we hid under the railroad bridge, and since then he had grown pale, his usual skinniness wasting away to leave him frail and almost birdlike. The whole top of his foot was covered with a clear, syrupy fluid that would dry into a transparent film, and his mother would skim it off each day with tweezers, leaving the raw and shiny skin underneath.

To get money for Kisu, Jani and I decided that we would have to do better at what we usually did for pocket change and candy. We would go begging from the GIs outside ASCOM, the U.S. Army post at the south end of town. Since I spoke English and Jani had yellow hair, we usually got more than most of the other kids.

At the first ASCOM bridge, we were surprised to see two teenage boys smoking nearby. Usually the youngest boys came to beg and then hid what they made before the older boys found out and robbed them. The GIs never gave anything to the older boys.

"Let's go back," said Jani. "We won't get anything because of these guys." We stopped at the bridge railing and watched the two teenagers while they talked to each other. One of them pointed at a yellow-haired GI who was taking pictures of the naked boys swimming in the sewercreek below. "Ya, you ainokos!" the other teenager called to us, "Come here and earn some money."

Jani and I stayed where we were. They came to us. The one in the white baseball cap asked us how old we were.

"Seven," I said. "In Korean age."

"Ten," said Jani.

"Good. Which one of you is the one who speaks English?"

"I do," I said.

"You?"

"Jani doesn't have an American father yet," I said.

"Well," said the boy in the baseball cap, "You stay with me then, while that older brother goes with your friend and brings more kids up here. You two will get a lot of money if you do as we say."

"How much?" said Jani.

"More than you can scrape by begging. Why don't you speak English, ungh? You're the one who looks like a Hello."

"So what?" said Jani.

The other boy, who wore the traditional black middle school uniform, but without a hat, grabbed Jani's shoulders and said, "Come with me, yellow hair." Jani went with him down to the sewercreek while the boy in the white cap explained the plan to me in a low voice. I wished I had been the one to go down to the sewercreek because it was hot on the bridge and I could hear the hiss of the water and feel the cool air coming up in little gusts.

"The Hellos like to take pictures of you little guys and send them to America," said the boy in the white cap. "So they have expensive cameras. Today we're going to swipe one of their cameras and get a lot of money for it." I sat up straight and listened carefully as he explained the plan. "Do you understand what you're supposed to do?" he asked when he was finished.

"Ungh, older brother. But who gets beat up? Do I have to?"

"No. You stay with the Hello."

"What if he beats us up?"

"He won't beat you up, stupid, because he'll think me and the other older brother are the badguys. Now tell me what I told you."

I recited the plan. When the others arrived, the boy in the white cap asked if anyone knew how to use an Japanese camera. A small, frail boy volunteered, saying his father owned a camera shop in Sinchon. The boy in the white cap lectured us all, then had us get ready for a GI to come by. Jani and I waited near the middle of the bridge and the five others pretended to play rock-paper-scissors at the far end. The two older boys walked a little ways towards Tatagumi and waited there, sharing a cigarette.

Several GIs passed as we waited, sweating from the heat that rose from the tarmac, but none of them had a camera. Jani and I held out our hands and ran to them, saying, "Hello, you got gum? You got one cho-co-late? You got one MPC? Hello, you gimmee taksan!" Only one of the GIs stopped to give us some gum. The others simply pushed on the tops of our heads and shoved us out of the way so that we wouldn't cling to them. It was a bad day.

We were about to leave when the yellow-haired GI who had been taking pictures came back out of the gate and leaned down over the side of the bridge to snap pictures. Jani gave the signal by wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. The other boys came running.

"Hey, Hello!" I called. "You want pitcher?" Jani made faces and flipped his eyelids inside-out to look scary. "Takee pitcher!" he called.

The GI pointed his camera at us, but we ran up to him before he could click it. "Hey, hold still," he said.

"No cho-co-late, no gum," I said. "We want pitcher!"

The other boys gathered around us chanting, "Sajin, sajin, Hello sajin jjigo." I told them the American words, and they changed their chant. "Hello, pitcher takee!" they shouted.

"You kids want to be in a picture?" said the GI, grinning and looking down at us from his fantastic height. "You all go line up over there and I'll take your picture. How about that?"

"We want Hello inside pitcher," I explained. "We likee you taksan, Hello." We tugged at his sleeves and pants. One boy started climbing his back.

"Hey, you boys cool off a bit, okay? I likee boy-san taksan, too. Hang on and I'll call a buddy to take the picture." He looked towards the gate and waved at the American MP, but the boy on his back grabbed his arm and slid down.

"No," I said. "Hello, you stay." The camera shop boy stepped up. "He takee pitcher," I said. "He be pitcher shop. He takee pitcher number one."

"You're not shittin' me? This boy-san knows how to use a camera? He no breakee camera? This baby costs taksan dollars, you understand?" The GI knelt down, and while we all watched, the skinny camera shop boy showed in gestures that he knew how to use the camera. "All right," said the GI. "Let's take a couple pictures. Come on." He took us to the railing and lined us up in front of him, then selected the two smallest boys and held them, one in each arm, like trophies. He bent down so the camera shop boy could take the camera from around his neck. "You takee a number one group shot," he said. "Get all of us." He motioned around. "Step back a bit. Over there." He pointed with his chin, and the boys in his arms giggled at the huge, dark stains of sweat at his armpits.

The camera shop boy looked nervously toward Tatagumi. The boy in the school uniform was standing near Long Legs' money changing store; the one in the white cap was running, already half-way to the bridge.

"There," said the GI. "Everybody say kimchi. Put on a smile, kids, this picture is going all the way back to The World."

Now the frail camera shop boy dangled the camera strap and glanced through the viewfinder, then up again. The GI put on a big smile that made him look no older than Jani.

"He's here," said Jani.

"Hey, you!" shouted the GI.

We all pressed against him to keep him from moving. The boy in the white cap grabbed the camera strap, shoved the camera shop boy roughly onto the pavement, and sprinted back toward Tatagumi without a backward glance. The GI dropped the two small boys, and pushing us out of the way, jumped awkwardly over the camera shop boy before he tripped and fell.

"Hey, you fucker! Come back here!" The GI got up and ran after him, but the boy in the white cap relayed the camera to the boy in the middle school uniform who sprinted into Tatagumi and disappeared down an alley. "You fuckin' Korean bastards! Come back here! Fuck you! God damn!" The GI caught the boy in the white cap and slammed him up against the wall of Long Legs' store, but before he had caught his breath or decided to beat him, an MP jeep came roaring past us out of ASCOM and pulled up behind him.

"They're taking him to prison," said Jani.

We walked slowly because we didn't want to look suspicious. The camera shop boy nursed a small scrape on his elbow, but smiled shyly with pride.

"The Hello wants to beat me up for no reason!" cried the boy in the white cap. "He's going to kill me!" He turned to the KATUSA MP, who was Korean, and started to cry.

By now, a small crowd had gathered to watch. The GI shouted at the KATUSA MP and the other Koreans while the boy in the white cap cowered against the wall. It looked like the GI and the KATUSA MP might start fighting each other, but then Long Legs came out of his store and said something that sounded authoritative both in Korean and in English-his English was better than most GIs'. The crowd moved back, and the giant yellow-haired MP, who had been sitting in the back of the jeep, came down and pushed the GI into the front seat. "Fuck you all!" shouted the GI. "Take your goddamn country and shove it up your ass!" As the KATUSA MP drove back into ASCOM, Long Legs slapped the boy in the white cap and shoved him violently into the street. The boy sat for a moment, nursing his bloody lip, but then he smiled, ran through the dispersing crowd, and was gone.

The next day the boy in the white cap met us at the old village well and gave us our share of the camera money. The others each got fifty won, but Jani, the camera shop boy, and I each got brand new one hundred won bills. While the others ran to buy food and candy, Jani and I went to Long Legs' store to change one of our bills.

"Where did you get this money?" said Long Legs, puffing smoke and speaking through the side of his mouth. "Why are your mothers giving you this much when they owe me, ungh?"

"It's not from our mothers," I said. "We got it for the camera."

"What?"

"Nothing," said Jani, giving me a sideways look to be quiet.

"You two helped them steal the camera!" Long Legs pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and smashed it into the half-filled aluminum ashtray on the floor, scattering ashes everywhere. "You idiots! Is something wrong with your brains? Your mothers work so hard, and every day I see you on that bridge dangling from the Hellos and asking for money just like beggars! Isn't that enough? Now you have to steal? You should be studying to be great men to help your families, and you study to be thieves?"

"We got a lot of money," said Jani. Long Legs slapped him across the cheek with the tips of his fingers. I winced. Jani sniffed back his tears.

"A lot of money? A lot of money? Don't make me laugh, mister gang leader! Do you know how much a Pentax is? Over 50,000 won! That's two-hundred-fifty times what you made together. Two hundred and fifty times! Now get out! If I ever hear about something like this again, I'll tell your mothers! Get out!" He chased us to the door. I had forgotten about the money, but Jani asked for our one hundred won. "Here," said Long Legs, and he flung us a handful of coins as he slid the door shut.

When we scraped the money up from the dirt, Jani counted a hundred and fifty won. He divided it for us, because I couldn't do the numbers. "We got a profit," said Jani. "We each get seventy-five won now, and we can give a hundred to Kisu." We had planned to buy pop-outs, boiled squid with pepper sauce, and steamed beancakes, but Long Legs had ruined our mood and soured our stomachs. We ate a little odaeng soup before evening.

Later, Jani brought a flashlight from his house, and we decided to stay out till after dark to run the alleys and surprise the GIs with their yang saekshi girlfriends. They hated having lights shined on them because it scared them into thinking that we were MPs out looking for GIs in town without a pass.

At the Radio Shop, Jani and I paused to look through the taped window at the shiny vacuum tubes Mr. Paek had lined up like rockets along the sides of the dusty old radios.

"We have to buy new batteries," said Jani, holding up his black plastic flashlight. "We might need a light bulb, too. See, the one inside looks dark."

Before I could look, someone reached down and snatched the flashlight out of Jani's hand.

"Ya!"

"If you want to have it back, you two come out to the bridge tomorrow after the noon siren." It was the boy in the white cap. He didn't have his cap now, but I recognized him by his pockmarked forehead and the scab on his lip.

"Ya, give it back!" said Jani.

The boy slapped him. "You two come and we'll get another camera like last time."

"No, we don't want to," I said. "You didn't give us enough money. You got thousands and thousands, and gave us only a hundred."

"Who told you that? Shut your mouth and listen to me or your flashlight's mine."

"Give it back!" said Jani, grabbing for it.

The boy knocked Jani on the head and pushed him away. "Will you come tomorrow?"

Jani looked at his flashlight, then at me. "Give me my flashlight now, and I'll come."

"No."

"Then fuck your mother!" Jani kicked the boy in the shin. When he yelped and jumped back, I grabbed the flashlight and struggled to get it out of his hand. Jani darted away and threw a rock that hit the boy on the back of the head.

"I'll kill you!" The boy hurled the flashlight, but Jani easily dodged and picked it up. "Fuck your mother!" Jani said again. He was out of reach, so the boy turned to me and opened his mouth wide, showing his teeth as if to bite me.

"If you touch me, I'll tell Long Legs," I said.

Before I could say anything else, he grabbed me, turned me around, and shoved me, head first, into the Radio Shop window.

I heard a loud noise and felt a terrible heat wash over me. My body turned to water and splashed against the dirt. Then I heard something that sounded like a heavy rain going on and on in the darkness, roaring loudly then quieting into a dull murmur. Through the one eye I could open, I saw a field of beautiful, sparkling glass that shimmered brightly like snow crystals under shifting clouds. My mouth tasted salty and the terrible heat became a gentle and comfortable warmth that put me to sleep. I dreamt of my mother's worried face, a long taxi ride, and sudden bright lights. I began to feel the heat again, in bursts, coming in turns from different parts of my body. Someone was moving me about and flashing something under the lights; and then a deep American voice said, "You're all patched up now, Tiger. Lucky you went all the way through, or you woulda' been sliced right in half." I opened both my eyes and saw the American doctor smiling down at me. He moved the bright light out of the way and offered me a cold can of Coca Cola.

 


 

Most of the scars from the window glass have disappeared; a few left faint marks that are obvious now only when my skin is cold -- in winter, in a swimming pool, in a cold shower-but the large gashes on my hips that needed stitches stretched into long welts, and over the years, as I grew, they migrated upwards and backwards, obscured from both memory and vision.

I have mounted the picture back in its place, bracketed by its scalloped adhesive corners against the black paper page of my mother's old album; it faces a page on which an older Jani looks up from a later snapshot. For an instant, as I close the album, Jani's picture and I look together at the faded photograph of the camera thieves, and then he meets his own image, face to face, and is gone. I know that some restless night when my leg has grown numb from sleeping too long on the scars on my right side, I will awaken in the dark, expecting to see the sparkle of bright light on glass, the roar of distant and invisible water, the faces of dead friends.

My mother tells me the photograph was given to Jani's mother by Long Legs, who discovered it on a roll of film he developed for a GI friend. Jani's mother sent it to her with a glossy eight-by-ten of her son, twenty-one years old, his hair gone from blond to brown like that of so many of us. Jani's features hadn't changed much in all the years since I had seen him last. He still had the same crooked teeth, the same posture, the same glint in his blue eyes. He finally did get an American father-a sergeant named Peterson married his mother and took the two of them off to Minnesota in the summer of '71. For many years I wishfully imagined that Jani had escaped as I had, that he had survived into happiness, that he had avoided the misfortunes of other children like ourselves: James, who drowned in the sewer creek behind his house; Cholsu, run over by a Corona taxi; Paulie, who apprenticed himself to a pimp and disappeared; Sandra, who ate rat poison after she was disfigured by a Japanese banker. All those years, not knowing where he was, I had imagined Jani somewhere in the vast and mythic America we had believed in as children-in the dream country that had vanished for me the day I set foot in the Westward Land-but then, along with the unexpected photos, came the report that Jani had died of leukemia just before his twenty-second birthday.

I remember now that when I heard the news from my mother, when she showed me the pictures, I felt no grief at all. Instead, I was suddenly preoccupied with the question of Jani's age. He had been three years older than me, but his mother had changed his age when she enrolled him in the American school at Yongsan. Because he spoke so little English, Jani had to enter a grade behind me; his mother had subtracted four years from his age so he would seem the right age for his grade. "When he died," I asked my mother, "was he twenty-one in his American age, or his real age?" "How would I know?" she said. "How can you ask that when I tell you your best friend died?"

I know that if I truly wanted to, I could have calculated how old Jani really was when he died; but over the years I have let it remain a mystery-even the year his mother sent the photos to my mother has faded from my memory. I will not struggle to remember, and I do not want to be reminded. I would rather believe that Jani's mother slipped when she told his age, having believed her own lie for so long that she thought of him in his American years. I want to believe that Jani regained those four years she subtracted from his life-that he lived to the eve of his twenty-sixth birthday. I have missed him so much that if I knew, I would grieve again for his four lost years. Even now I cannot bear to do the math. I would rather leave it to his ghost to count those years-the way he calculated our profit from the handful of coins Long Legs flung at us in his guilty anger so long ago.

 


 
Excerpted from Memories of My Ghost Brother, Dutton, 1996.
Available through Bo-Leaf Books.