The Kims moved into the house opposite ours and slightly up the street. I believe that the Kims were the only Asian family living on our street. At the garage sale, Mr. Kim expressed interest in some old cabinets and tools, and eventually purchased a few items. He was polite and reserved. He wore the simple clothing of a man who worked for a living and was quietly, humbly successful. Very understated but always neat and tidy, with his shirt always tucked in and his shoes always clean. Walking past the Kim’s house, you could glance between the fence boards and see that their pool was empty. Mr. Kim never put water in the pool, probably because none of the Kims could swim. It was not out of laziness or lack of pride, as Mr. Kim kept his front yard immaculate, and the grass always trimmed and bagged. Yes, it must have been that the Kims could not swim. This symbol of great American life was simply something they could not relate to. Having lived in Korea for a decade, I now know why.
Turns out Mr. Kim was living with his wife, four daughters, and his mother in law. This is probably why Mr. Kim was so often seen outside tending to his yard, and drinking beer. I never saw the inside of the Kim house, and the Kim daughters were all middle and high school aged, the oldest being around 12th grade and the youngest possibly around 7th grade. A real estate agent told my parents that it was a four bedroom house. The garage sale was the only time I’d really seen Mr. Kim up close, though he would from time to time wander over to our yard as my father was doing yard work, and have a beer and a smoke. My father was basically a country boy, and to him, Mr. Kim must have seemed part alien and part novelty, perhaps the first Asian person he’d ever had contact with outside of Vietnam. But Mr. Kim was a business owner and a hard worker, and my father reserved the deepest respect for people who built something from nothing, so Mr. Kim was alright in his book.
I remember one summer when my father and I loaded an old mattress into our truck, and were driving it to the local landfill. It was a king sized mattress that we’d just replaced. I was about 13. As we drove down the road towards the landfill, the mattress suddenly broke free from the ropes in the bed of the pickup truck and flew out the back onto the road. My father pulled over to the side of the road, and we got out to drag the mattress to the side of the road. As we walked towards the mattress, a white Volkswagen van pulled over and out came a man waving at us. It was Mr. Kim. He’d stopped to help us lift the mattress back into the truck. After living in Korea, I’ve come to realize that Mr. Kim was not a typical Korean. He seemed to take to American life and culture like a fish to water. He had left Korea’s ‘fuck-you-I-don’t-know-you’ culture in his rear view mirror, tossed his Korean passport in the trash and gotten a one-way ticket to the States. He was a decent human being, and a good neighbor. “We sure are lucky Mr. Kim was behind us” my father said.
The only thing that ever stood out about Mr. Kim was that he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time outside of his house. He spent a lot of time cutting grass. He cut the grass, and then cut the grass again, and when he was done, he got down on his hands and knees and scissor-cut the blades of grass that the lawn mower had missed. Mr. Kim probably cut more grass than he had, in fact it was not uncommon for him to cut his neighbors grass as well. The Kims, we found out, either ran or owned a 7-11 convenience store in a much seedier part of the city, but they seemed to have a full time staff, and thus a generous amount of free time outside of work. Mr. Kim grew vegetables and pomegranates. He painted and re-painted his fences. He cut his grass weekly, and did the edges of the sidewalk and walkway by hand. He built a bird house. He built a squirrel house. He dug a large pond in a corner of his yard and filled it with fish. In the early evening as the sun was going down, he’d stand on the sidewalk and stare proudly at what he had accomplished. He’d smoke and smoke, but would never throw his cigarettes on the ground. He had a large Folgers coffee tin in his garage that acted as his ash tray and I often saw it filled to the top.
One day during winter vacation, I was riding my bicycle home from a friend’s house, and as I rounded the corner to our street I saw flashing lights and police cars parked across the street from our house. An ambulance sped past me. My mother and father were standing on the grass in front of our house, looking across the street. A police officer was talking to a distraught Mrs. Kim. Everyone was standing out front, but nobody was doing anything, kind of how people act when there is a shark attack at the beach.
Mr. Kim had fallen off the third floor roof while hanging some Christmas lights. My father was outside at the time, and was certain that Mr. Kim had jumped. “It was clear as day. He wasn’t hanging any Christmas lights. He was up there like he was gonna clean the gutters, but he didn’t have a spade or pressure washer. He was just kinda looking over the edge of the roof towards the empty pool and smoking a cigarette. I was gonna go over and ask ‘im if he needed any help cleanin’ the gutters. He took a long drag off that cigarette, stubbed it out, walked to the edge and dove right off, straight into that empty pool. No scream, no nothin’, saw it clear as day. The sound of him hittin’ the bottom of that pool made me sick to my stomach.”
According to my father, the drop from the third floor roof to the deep end of the empty pool was about 50 feet. When the paramedics arrived, Mr. Kim was not dead, but was barely holding on. Days and weeks went by. Neighbors wished the Kim family well. “Do you think the Kims will be okay? Maybe we should ask her if she needs anything.” I’d hear neighbors talk and express their concern for the family. Apparently the eldest daughter had seen Kim fall from the living room window. Mr. Kim had at least one nasty compound fracture, and had lost a large quantity of blood, which had pooled at the deepest end of the empty pool. The girl was probably traumatized.
A week or so passes and my father is in the garage, smoking and staring out at the evening sky. The police tape has been removed from the Kim yard and the grass has started to grow longer than Mr. Kim would have kept it. The next day a neighbor would go over and mow the lawn for Mrs. Kim. “All those women. Can you imagine? Six women in one house, and poor old Mr. Kim. probably couldn’t sleep with any of them. Bras hanging from shower rods, lipstick on the drinking glasses, and long hairs in all of the drains. Man, oh man..” My father exhaled. I’d sometimes seen Mr. Kim cutting grass late at night. I imagined his home littered with nylon stockings and Barbie dolls. Perhaps he and Mrs. Kim had tried everything possible to have a son but it just wasn’t in the cards.
Mr. Kim came back several months later, walking with a cane. I didn’t see him cut the grass so much anymore and he didn’t come around for beer or smokes, but I did see him up on the roof a few times, staring down into that empty pool while smoking a cigarette.