When John Lennon Died

Winner of the 
Gloria Vanderbilt CVC Prize for Short Fiction

In the winter of 1980, when I was twelve and a police order kept my father away, Tom Chang, a deacon at my mother's church, visited our home every weekend. This was in Koreatown, near Bloor and Christie, and my father had put all of our savings into a convenience store because he believed that our luck was going to change and that fortune would finally come our way. My mother changed the locks after the last incident with my father and my five year-old brother was sent to stay with my grandmother until things settled down.

Tom Chang was married with three children. One of them was a girl my own age, Sabrina, who was always so upbeat at our Sunday school that I had assumed she knew nothing about her father’s weekend visits. I may have been wrong about this; maybe Sabrina did know, but as a good Christian she had faith that it was all a part of God’s plan.

This was around the time John Lennon died and although I could not confirm it to be true, both my mother and Tom talked about him as though he was their friend. One night, they sat around the kitchen table listening to his music on the radio. My mother swirled whiskey in her glass while Tom kept time to the music by tapping his feet on the linoleum. And when he sang along to some of the tunes, his high-pitched voice was so different from my father’s that I thought he sounded like a girl and not a real man.

My mother spoke in Korean to both of us, but Tom spoke to me only in English. He had studied in Canada and I remember my mother being very pleased when she told me this.
“He wrote this after he left The Beatles,” Tom said during one song. The singer’s voice had a raw and hurting feeling to it like he was crying out to somebody who was leaving him or had left him already. I asked Tom what the song was about.
“Oh, about loss.” My mother rose from her chair and stood at the kitchen window. Her arms were wrapped around her chest and she was looking at the drifting snow.
“It’s late,” my mother said. “Go to bed.”
“But it’s Saturday,” I said. Tom laughed and put his hand behind my head and pulled me towards him like he was going to tell me a secret, but instead he put a dollar bill in my hand.
“Buy yourself a comic book,” he said and winked at me. We sold Archie comics at our convenience store, but I never liked reading them because there were no heroes in them.

It was also around this time, that a brown Buick Riviera began to appear on our side street. I knew who owned all the cars on Euclid Avenue, at least the ones south of Bloor Street, and nobody owned a Buick Riviera. It would be there before I went to bed and be gone before I left for school the next morning. After dinner, I would watch from my bedroom window as the car pulled up slowly like it was driving over broken glass and park in front of Jake DiNardi’s house just beyond the streetlamp. In the weeks following Lennon’s death, the car came around more than usual. Through my binoculars, I could see the outline of a man leaning forward in the driver seat, looking up at my mother’s room. I could tell it was a man by his body size; he was as big as my father and seemed to take up the whole front of the car.

When I went to buy the comic book with the money Tom had given me, the car was there as usual. The headlights were turned off but I could tell that the engine was still running from the white smoke coming out of the exhaust. I thought that the man inside must have been cold and had kept the engine on to stay warm. I crossed to the other side of the street. When the car was directly to my left, I took a quick look but could only see the back of the man’s head.

I returned later with a copy of G.I. Joe tucked inside my coat and the car was still there, but the engine was shut off. A thin layer of snow covered the car, so I could not tell if someone was inside. A television set flickered in Jake’s living room and I knew that he and his brothers were sitting around eating pizzas and watching Hockey Night In Canada like they did every Saturday night. I approached the car slowly and could hear the snow crunching under my boots. I wiped some snow off the passenger-side window and leaned in to look. On the seat there was what looked like a baseball bat and a pair of binoculars like my own except they were much bigger. Suddenly, I felt someone standing behind me and was surprised to hear a sound like a drowning person coming out my mouth. I turned around to face him and recognized him as the owner of the car even though I had never seen his face before. He was a big white man wearing a bomber jacket and his leather gloves looked almost too small on his hands. The light in my mother’s bedroom was on and I wanted to call out to her, but my mouth would not open.
“It's okay, kid,” the man said. His breath was bluish in the air. “I’m not gonna hurt you. I just want to talk.” He bent down to look into my eyes and I could see that his face was full of tiny craters. A scar the size of a caterpillar ran under his chin.
“You like my car?’ he said. I shrugged my shoulders because I wasn’t sure if I liked his car or not.  “It's cold out here. Why don’t we go in --” And before he could finish what he was saying, I made a run for the house. My G.I. Joe comic had slipped out of my jacket, but I just left it and kept running. When I reached my front door, I exhaled for the first time and looked back. The man was gone and his car was driving away, down our street. I saw the taillights brightening at a stop sign before accelerating again.

Upstairs, the radio was still on in the kitchen but my mother and Tom were not there. I went down the narrow cold hallway toward my room and slowed down in front of my mother’s bedroom. There was no light under her door and I could hear Tom saying something in a low voice and my mother giggling in a way I wasn’t used to hearing from her. I went into my bedroom and lay on my bed. I wondered if the man and his Buick Riviera had anything to do with Tom being at our house all the time and if the police were ever going to allow my father to return if he promised to never hurt my mother again.

In the morning, I could hear Tom walking past my room and down the staircase. When I looked out the window, he was not on the sidewalk and I heard a car squealing down the icy street but was not sure whose car it was. In the kitchen, my mother was frying eggs and humming to herself. She seemed happier than usual. I didn't tell her about meeting the man outside because I didn’t want to ruin her mood. She put a plate of eggs in front of me and went downstairs to open the store. I went out into the street looking for my comic book and found it on the sidewalk buried in snow. When I came back inside, the telephone was ringing. I picked up the receiver. It was a woman’s voice speaking in Korean and she sounded upset about something.
“Where is she?” she said. I asked her if she was looking for my mother and she repeated herself, “where is she?” I told her that my mother was downstairs watching the store. She hung up without saying goodbye. The woman sounded like an older version of Sabrina. And although I had never spoken to Sabrina’s mother before, I thought that their voices would be similar because they were mother and daughter.

After an hour or so, I went downstairs to get a can of pop. The store was empty and my mother was sitting on a stool behind the counter. I could tell she had been crying and she turned away when she saw me.
“I have to go to the hospital,” she said after a long time. “You watch the store.” Her eyes were red and her voice crackly just like it got when my father used to hit her. I had watched the store by myself before, but it was only for short periods of time like when my mother needed to take a washroom break. I sensed my mother would be gone much longer but I didn’t bother mentioning that. She put on her coat and hurried out the door.

The neighbours were surprised to see me there by myself and helped me out whenever I didn’t know the price of something, like canned tomatoes or shampoo. But I remembered the prices for most things like milk and bread and lottery tickets. Later, Jake dropped by because he had heard that I was alone and wanted to help. I knew he was just saying that and that he really wanted something for free, but I didn’t mind because we could talk about things like the hockey game and superheroes and not about the kind of things that were going on in my house. When it was time for him to go home, Jake took a chocolate bar and a bag of chips with him. The store was slower at night because the snow was beginning to really come down.

I was refilling the milk fridge when the telephone rang. When I said “hello”, there was no answer on the other end, just loud music in the background. I was ready to hang up when someone finally spoke. It was my father and I was happy to hear his voice, although I could not tell whether he was happy to hear mine. He asked how I was and I told him I was fine and that I was watching the store by myself because my mother was at the hospital visiting a friend. He told me that he was proud of me and then asked about my younger brother, so I told him he was with our grandmother.
“When are you coming home?” I said.
“Soon,” he said. I wanted to ask him if he knew anything about the man and the Buick Riviera but decided not to because I felt like his mind was somewhere else.
“I have to go,” he said. “Everything is going to be okay.” I didn’t know what he meant by that or if I believed that everything was going to be okay or not. All I knew was that things were not like they used to be and might never be again and that I missed my brother even though he bothered me sometimes.

When I got off the telephone with my father, I tore open a bag of chips and looked outside. It was like someone had dropped a white blanket over the storefront.  I could not see any cars or people passing by, so I imagined everybody in their homes with people they loved and who loved them back. I wasn’t sure if my mother was going to come back any time soon, so I walked myself through closing up the store. The most important part was to take the money out of the cash register and put it in the brown bag behind the ice freezer.

It was very late when my mother came home. I was at the kitchen table doing my homework. Her eyes were red and she looked tired. She went to the sink to pour herself a drink and asked me about my day. I told her everything went fine but not the part about Jake dropping by and taking food with him even though I never said he could. I also wanted to tell her that my father had called, but I felt like she already knew.
“Get some sleep,” she said. “You have school tomorrow.” I asked her if Tom was going to come by. She turned away from me and took a big sip of her whiskey.
“No,” she said. “He’s not.” She then asked me if I liked Tom.
“Yes.” I lied because I knew it would make her feel better if I said that. She told me that he liked me too, liked me very much, but that he was probably never going to come to our house again. She was quiet for long time and then she let out an exhaling sound, like the sound of a cat I had once heard when it was run over by a car. I could tell there was a lot on her mind so I got up to go to bed. I said good night to her from my bedroom door, but I don’t think she heard me. She was sitting there at the table staring at the wall.

I awoke to banging on the front door. I got out of bed and looked out my window. It was very dark even though there was a lot of snow outside. I could not see anyone because the front door was on the same side as my window. When he raised his voice, I could tell it was my father and that he had been drinking, but I couldn’t make out anything he was saying. Some lights came on in the houses across the street. I imagined my mother with her ear pressed against her bedroom door and holding the doorknob like a grenade ready to explode. My father sounded angry and he kept saying things at my mother as though she was standing in front of him but far away. I returned to my bed after the police came and took my father away. I lay there for a while thinking about my mother and whether or not I should go into her room. I knew that some bad things were happening to her now and that more bad things would happen to her again, but I did not feel sorry for her. As I began falling asleep, I thought about all the snow and my brother who was staying with my grandmother and how things didn’t seem quite right in the world. John Lennon had died and I knew that it would be a long time before his death didn't mean anything to me anymore.