Monday, September 26, 2022

Hyuk-jae: K-pop Runaway

Hyuk-jae: K-pop Runaway

J.T. Jefferson




            I can’t believe I was born here, Hyuk-jae thought, gazing up through the skylight of a black Cadillac Escalade as it pulled away from Madison Square Garden and headed south along 7th Avenue. The yellow-white eye of the August midday sun followed him and his small entourage. It was unable to cast its heat inside the tented confines of their air-conditioned coach, and something about that fact added to Hyuk-jae’s growing sense of frustration.
            Like always, he sat in the center-rear seat sandwiched between his manager, Nari, and his stylist. In the middle row were two burly male bodyguards who dwarfed Nari’s diminutive assistant. The assistant never faced forward. She knelt on her seat, tangled in a seatbelt, looking back directly at Nari, careful not to miss any assignments. Nari told her when and what food to order, which pictures to take, where to post them and the comments that HJ supposedly was making at the time. HJ is the stage name Hyuk-jae chose to make himself easier to digest in the English-speaking world.
            A five-story-tall electronic billboard on the corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue flashed a picture of Hyuk-jae. In the picture, he stood on a stage gripping a silver microphone and wearing a one-piece black leather outfit. His bowl-cut black hair rested on his head with the appearance of unkempt spaghetti. A diamond necklace distracted the viewer’s gaze while he mischievously peered into the audience. The caption on the sign read: ONE NIGHT ONLY! TUESDAY, AUGUST 9TH – KOREAN HIP HOP SENSATION HJ WILL BE ON FIRE AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN. It was all too surreal for this kid from Queens.

***

            Earlier, on this sultry Saturday morning in NYC, Hyuk-jae landed at JFK International Airport for the first time in nearly 20 years. When he was seven-years-old, his parents pulled up stakes and returned to South Korea. They had met while foreign students at Queens College. Soon after graduating, they opened a dry cleaning business on Main Street in Flushing, Queens. Hyuk-jae, their only child, was born in November 1995. His mother, who was born in North Korea, never overcame her homesickness. His dad believed it was because her mother, Hyuk-jae’s grandmother, was still in North Korea. When his maternal grandfather died, his mother wanted to return to the city of Daeseong-dong in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), just in case her mother ever escaped the ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
            No fewer than 100 young Korean American women and teenage girls had crowded the exit gate at the terminal when his plane arrived. Even before he came into view, they began chanting, “HJ, HJ, HJ . . .” Hyuk-jae was amazed at how the Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth (ARMY), always seemed to know his itinerary. He thought, for sure, that arriving three days before his performance would gain him some peace. Undoubtedly, Nari tipped them off, he figured. The horde of ladies stopped chanting and began screaming during the few seconds it took his bodyguards to whisk him into their SUV.
            “Welcome home!” Nari said to him excitedly, as the driver sped toward Manhattan for their first pre-show walkthrough.
            “Says you,” Hyuk-jae replied nervously. His throat felt increasingly restricted, as though he were a coveted pure breed puppy whose master kept tightening the collar. You’ll never get away, echoed in his mind.

***

            By the first grade, Hyuk-jae’s classmates began introducing him to their musical interests. His very conservative parents only listened to traditional Korean music, so his peers became windows to the vast world of entertainment. Flushing, Queens boasted the most diverse racial and ethnic student population on the planet. First- and second-generation Asians, Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, Caribbeans, and Indians all mingled with children from old American families. It was the exponentially exploding hip-hop culture and music that most appealed to Hyuk-jae.
            Looking back, Hyuk-jae wonders if part of the reason for his parents’ decision to return to Korea was out of concern for what they may have perceived to be negative influences. Seeing their round-faced, pale, pudgy kid with a mess of black hair on his head dressed in a hoodie and blasting Busta Rhymes from his bedroom stereo may have frightened them. Hyuk-jae smiles as he reminisces about singing lyrics from Ludacris’s Rollout song while getting on a plane to Korea at age seven. None of them knew then that he would someday move them from the DMZ to the most affluent district in Seoul, Gangnam-gu, to live out their lives in luxury with a chef, maid, and gardener tending to their needs.
            Upon arriving in Daeseong-dong, Hyuk-jae became friends with Joon, the boy next door. It helped that they were in the same grade and could walk to school together. Joon, a spindly kid with a perpetual golden tan, appeared to be comfortable with being awkward. Other children gave up on teasing him about his skinny body, ill-fitting clothes, and overbite, since he would only react with a smile, grateful to be noticed. He also loved to share with anyone who would listen that his best friend was from New York.

***

            Joon’s sister, Nari, was already in high school when Hyuk-jae met her. She was at the top of her class and known for actively lobbying government officials to do more for North Korean refugees. It broke her heart to see their bewildered faces on the news after surviving a perilous journey across the DMZ, only to learn that the 1950s dystopian world that they came from was far behind the space-aged existence now before them. Nari pledged to devote her life to law so that she could advocate for refugees. She went on to become valedictorian of her high school and later attended the Seoul National University School of Law.

***

            By freshman year in high school in 2009, Hyuk-jae and Joon had become popular among their local peers for hosting a YouTube channel they called HJ & J Talk Hip Hop. Initially, they would only post videos of themselves bantering back and forth about current happenings in the world of hip hop. Hyuk-jae added English subtitles to the videos to expand their reach. They eventually began including interviews with aspiring Korean hip-hop artists.
            During their senior year in 2012, Joon converted his sister’s former bedroom into a music studio. He had an ear for sound and began making and recording music mashups for their channel. This sparked an idea in Hyuk-jae that would change his life. He understood that simply translating the lyrics of a song into another language and singing it over the same music did not work well because of the differences in pace and pitch of the languages. So, he asked Joon to make subtle changes in the music to match the translation. They shared his first song, “Big Thunder,” on their YouTube show in both English and Korean with the appropriate subtitles for each. It went viral.
            Producers from the top three music labels in Korea reached out to them. One offered them a contract, and that was when things became a bit rocky. They were both only seventeen, so they needed their parents’ permission to sign. Joon’s parents were against him taking this hobby of his any further. Next year, he would be attending college, and perhaps following in the footsteps of his sister the lawyer. Hyuk-jae’s parents were more liberal in comparison and only requested that Hyuk-jae have a lawyer review the contract before signing.
            The only lawyer Hyuk-jae knew was Nari. She read the contract as a favor, shared it with a colleague of hers who worked in the publishing industry, made a bunch of suggested revisions in red ink, and returned it to the producer. Thanks to Nari, Hyuk-jae signed one of the most favorable contracts of any musician. This caught the attention of Nari’s law firm, so they took Hyuk-jae on as a regular client and assigned Nari to manage his account.
            Hyuk-jae’s first full album, New York Seoul, hit the top of the charts in 2013 in over 70 countries. Each song on the album was performed twice, once in English and again in Korean, with slight musical variations. Since then, for nine years now, HJ has never been alone. Of course, he could be alone in a bathroom or bedroom, but not entirely. Outside of any room he is in, there are security personnel. If too much time goes by without his presence, usually not much more than 20 minutes, a knock comes on the door. Nari and her assistant handle much of the chaos generated by the people around him: the dance choreographer, a masseur for his aching muscles, interpreters, a stylist, bodyguards, and drivers.

***

            Nari was saying something to him about a short residency in Las Vegas as the Escalade crept along 7th Avenue, but his mind was elsewhere. Hyuk-jae was fixated on the people walking freely along the sidewalks, in and out of the subway stations, taxis, and buses.
            “Are you listening to me?” Nari asked.
            “Yeah, you want me to do a show in Vegas,” he replied, while wearily pulling his eyes away from the window to look at her.
            “No. I mentioned that the Bangtan Boys did a week's worth of shows there back in April.”
            Hyuk-jae’s thoughts drifted again. How nice it would be to just go out for a bagel or slice of pizza without having to have it coordinated or nixed in exchange for delivery. Never in my adult life have I been able to walk a dog or jog in a park, he lamented.
            Subconsciously, he pressed the small backpack on the floor between his ankles tighter. Stuffed inside of it was a nondescript change of clothes. I’m going to do it, he promised himself. Today, I’m going to do it.

***

            Hyuk-jae hid the real reason why he asked Nari to charter a flight to New York, which got them there early that morning. He knew she would tip off the ARMY to stir up publicity. It was her job to keep him relevant in media circles. Arriving three days before his concert to rest was his stated objective; setting up a rehearsal before noon was how he justified the unusual time they needed to depart from Seoul. What he did not share with anyone in his circle was that he planned to attend the Rock the Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium in Flushing, not as HJ but as an ordinary spectator. The all-day event coordinated by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame rapper LL Cool J was taking place that day.
            At some point, their driver headed east before turning north on Madison Avenue. Hyuk-jae noticed a dramatic change in the atmosphere outside this muscle-bound carriage. There were fewer people hustling about, a lower noise volume, and a greater feeling of arrogance emanating from the old concrete buildings. “Where are we staying?” he asked Nari.
            “The Carlyle on 76th Street. It’s the best place in NYC for privacy and quiet,” Nari replied.
            “Is that so?” Hyuk-jae asked sarcastically and redundantly. There seemed to be no place on Earth that the paparazzi could not infiltrate.
            To Hyuk-jae’s surprise, no celebrity gawkers or sketchy fan girls were waiting for him as the SUV pulled up to the curb in front of The Carlyle. Its golden revolving entrance was flanked by two equally impressive golden doors. This won’t be how I exit, he thought, while following his stylist and bodyguards into the lavish hotel.
            Nari was waiting for him inside the foyer, along with four bellhops. Most of the musicians, dancers, and production crew had accommodations closer to the arena. Hyuk-jae envied how everyone they traveled with could explore the many attractions of NYC this weekend unencumbered. Nari shared a suite with her assistant, the stylist had her own room, and the bodyguards were booked into a suite next to his. Both bodyguards were assigned by an executive security agency. All of the agency’s employees had extensive military training, stern faces, and were hyper-alert. Hyuk-jae knew that they would be alternating their work schedules to make sure someone was always seated by his door.
            “Nari, I’ll be eating dinner alone in my room tonight,” Hyuk-jae told her just loud enough so that their entire party and the bellhops could hear him.
            “You sure?” she asked, with a bit of concern in her voice. If he was not feeling well, canceling this show would cost them millions of dollars.
            “Don’t worry. I have a few songs in my head that I want to get down on paper,” he said reassuringly.
            One bellhop accompanied Hyuk-jae and the bodyguards to their suites. He told the guard who drew the first shift that he would be taking a nap and to allow room service to set up dinner in the dining room later while he was in the jacuzzi. This was just a ruse; his plan was to be a ghost in the concrete jungle within minutes.

***

            Hyuk-jae clutched his small backpack and hustled to the bathroom. He paused for a moment in front of the bathroom’s ceiling-to-floor ice-block designed door, which slid soundlessly into the wall. Hidden lights tucked along ornate moldings and mirrored tiles blinked to life once his nose crossed into the Roman bath-inspired oasis. Hyuk-jae shook his head in mock amazement at the expansiveness of this one space. It was twice the size of the apartments he grew up in, both in Daeseong-dong and Flushing.
            Hyuk-jae kicked off his burgundy, custom-fitted boots and sat in front of one of the two vanity mirrors. Looking at himself, he could not believe that the scorching summer sun had only managed to make his pale skin take on a wet hue, not the golden color of his best friend, Joon. The mess of wavy blackness that crowned his scalp gave way to perfectly trimmed, thick eyebrows over long eyelashes that highlighted his brown eyes. His rather common nose and round face were easy to ignore, thanks to his pouty, naturally pink lips. His stylist routinely darkened his lips to ruby red and added a bit of sheen.
            After removing several gaudy rings from his fingers and carefully snapping off an equally obnoxious necklace, Hyuk-jae began unzipping the one-piece red leather outfit he was wearing. He thought of his clothing and jewelry as props for the HJ persona, nothing more. Once undressed, he took a glance at all five foot nine inches of his medium-build frame. Nodding, as though answering an internal question, he opened the backpack he had tossed in the sink.
            The contents of the backpack were dumped on the sink’s counter. It contained a navy blue hoodie, blue jeans with a few random tears, and a pair of slip-on white sneakers. Nothing that would stand out in any setting, Hyuk-jae supposed. He dressed quickly before searching his hotel suite for a way out.
            He found it. In the kitchen, there was a walk-in pantry with a dumbwaiter in the back that descended into one of The Carlyle’s restaurant service areas. That’s gonna be a tight squeeze, Hyuk-jae thought, but I can fit in. Before making his exit, Hyuk-jae took a clock radio from the master bedroom and placed it in the bathroom next to the jacuzzi. He set it to a popular music station and cranked up the volume. In about four hours, room service would be let in to set the dinner table, and they would assume he was bathing.
            Knowing that Nari could track his cell phone, Hyuk-jae decided to leave it behind. The one phone number he might need, Joon’s, was already etched into his memory. He used his phone one last time to check a Google map of the area. An alleyway ran behind the buildings on 76th and 77th streets that extended from behind The Carlyle on Madison Avenue, one city block to Park Avenue. To know where garbage was removed and deliveries made, away from traffic and prying eyes, was all Hyuk-jae needed.
            Using credit cards would be as telling as carrying his cell phone, so Hyuk-jae had made an exchange for a few thousand U.S. dollars while at Incheon International Airport in Seoul. With his pockets filled with cash and a hoodie covering his face, Hyuk-jae climbed onto the dumbwaiter and pressed the button marked “down.” “Rollout,” he whispered.
            Descending from the 25th floor took approximately five minutes. His curled body position made his neck begin to ache from the feeling of heat rising in his spine. As he gained more awareness of his neck, his right leg became numb. When the dumbwaiter stopped, Hyuk-jae uncoiled as he sprung clumsily through wide strips of heavy plastic, which acted as a curtain concealing the dumbwaiter. Thankfully, at two o’clock on a beautiful summer Saturday, no hotel guests were waiting for butler-in-suite dining service. Hyuk-jae found himself completely on his own for the first time in a decade.

***

            The exit door for the alleyway connected directly to the restaurant’s kitchen. This made for quick disposal of uneaten food that would soon rot, surely giving off a scent that only rats would find appealing. Still trying to regain feeling in his right leg, Hyuk-jae limped into the alleyway and made his way out to Madison Avenue. With his head down and his peripheral vision partially blocked by the hood of the hoodie, he bumped into a man walking by. He collided with the man hard enough to send him falling against a light pole.
            “Oh my god, are you okay?” Hyuk-jae asked, reaching for the man’s left arm to help him up. He was a middle-aged black man with a closely cut, expertly groomed beard that featured graying strands on his chin. His scalp was a bald brown orb that glinted in the sunlight. The man staggered slightly upon rising, and he held his right hand over a small bump on his head, where it had knocked into that dirty gray post.
            “Whoa,” the man groaned.
            “I’m so sorry,” Hyuk-jae said while gently steering the man toward the outside wall of The Carlyle to help steady him. The man leaned erectly against the building. Hyuk-jae could see and feel that the man was of average weight and stood about six feet tall. While rubbing his wound, he looked directly at Hyuk-jae. He did not speak. Hyuk-jae saw that his watery eyes were still clearing and his lips were thicker and redder than his own.
            “No worries, kid,” the man finally managed a few words.
            “What’s your name, sir? I’m Kim,” Hyuk-jae said. He wanted to know the man’s name just in case he needed to call for an ambulance. “Kim” was the only name he could come up with in a hurry that is common among Koreans. No need to get exposed before getting away, he thought.
            “Darryl, Darryl Jenkins,” the man responded. His voice was firm now, and he had stopped leaning against the wall.
            “Can I walk with you?” Hyuk-jae asked. “I’ll feel better knowing you got to where you’re going safely.”
            “Sure,” Darryl replied with an embarrassed smile. He did not want to admit that the pain in his head was making him feel nauseous. “My car is in the Quik Park garage just around the corner. Where were you headed in such a hurry?” he asked. “I wouldn’t want to make you late.”
            Remembering the festival, Hyuk-jae smiled and said, “Not a problem. I have all day. I just didn’t want my friends to see me leave. They won’t miss me until tomorrow morning. I made sure of that.” Hyuk-jae thought about what he just said and added, “It’s not an escape, or anything like that. I just need some time to myself.”
            Darryl nodded slowly. He knew he had a bottle of ibuprofen in his car’s glove compartment, and he could not wait much longer for relief. He was born and raised in Queens, New York, but he now lived in Woodstock. Woodstock is a two-hour drive north into the Catskill Mountains. Today’s visit to the city was for a consultation with a renowned heart surgeon. There was no way he could make that drive back home, feeling the way he did now.
            “Maybe you can help me,” Hyuk-jae said as they approached the valet at the Quik Park. “How do I get to the Forest Hills Stadium?”
            As the parking garage attendant went to fetch his car, Darryl rubbed the gray hairs of his chin, as if in deep contemplation. He looked up at Hyuk-jae and said, “How does this sound? It will take me a while to feel well enough to drive, so why don’t you take the wheel while I rest in the back seat. When we get to Forest Hills, I can drive myself home to Woodstock from there.”
            “Really?” Hyuk-jae blurted out; he could not believe his luck.
            “It’s a win-win,” Darryl continued. “I get a chauffeur, and you get to Forest Hills. What kind of event is it anyway?”
            “LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells Festival!” Hyuk-jae answered, struggling to contain the giggles of excitement growing inside him. “Do you like hip hop?”
            “I grew up with old school hip hop: The Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC, The Fat Boys, Heavy D. & The Boys, LL Cool J, and more. I was a fanatic about it until I went to college in the late 80s and early 90s. I lost interest after that,” Darryl said, as he handed the valet a cash tip for bringing his white 2014 Subaru Forester to the entrance.
            “Wow! That’s really old school,” Hyuk-jae inadvertently said out loud as they climbed into the car. He was not referring to the Subaru but to the list of artists Darryl just mentioned.
            Darryl smiled. He was not offended. Most of the rappers from his day were around his age or no more than several years older. “Hey, Kim, if it’s mostly old school performers, maybe I’ll go in with you.”
            “It is, and it’s my treat,” Hyuk-jae said, in a tone that accepted no refusal. “Another thing . . .” Hyuk-jae began as he typed “Forest Hills Stadium” into the car’s navigation system. “My name is HJ.”
            “HJ . . .” Darryl mused. “That name sounds familiar, but I might be thinking of H&M fashion.”
            Hyuk-jae laughed and asked, “Have you ever heard of K-pop?”
            “I think so. Does it have something to do with Korea?” Darryl asked. Like most born and bred Americans, he carried no shame about being ignorant of the happenings in sports and entertainment that were not popular in the United States. Formula 1 drivers, cricket and rugby players, and even most soccer stars could vacation unmolested almost anywhere in the USA.
            “K-pop is Korean popular music and culture. You must have heard of the group BTS . . .” Hyuk-jae explained as he looked in the rearview mirror to see how Darryl reacted. There was no hint of recognition on Darryl’s face. Darryl’s expression remained placid. Amazingly, he never heard of HJ or BTS. Thinking of this fact actually made Hyuk-jae feel more comfortable. He was finally with someone who was reacting to him as a person, and not “kissing his ass” as an idol.

***

            Darryl and Hyuk-jae reached the festival at around three-thirty in the afternoon. Darryl was beginning to feel better and made his way to the food court for a cup of coffee. Hyuk-jae accompanied him with a growling stomach of his own. He had not eaten since arriving at JFK International Airport. At the food court, Hyuk-jae went straight for Nas’s Sweet Chick chicken, and Darryl settled for Ghostface Killah’s Killah Koffee.
            They stayed at the festival until the last performance, dancing and rapping to Fat Joe, Lil Kim, Ice Cube, and many other rap pioneers. Hyuk-jae was impressed with Darryl’s knowledge about the dawn of hip hop and how he transformed into a happy teenager as the festival rocked on into the night. Darryl enjoyed how one of the only Asian faces in the stadium, his new friend HJ, moved with a sense of belonging among the predominantly black and brown attendees.

***

            “After three cups of Killah Koffee, I’ll be buzzed all the way home,” Darryl said, as they exited the stadium with the masses. “Would you like me to drop you off at a subway station?” Darryl asked Hyuk-jae, who was suddenly looking solemn after the festival.
            “I’m really not ready to go back,” Hyuk-jae replied.
            “Won’t you be missed in a few hours?” Darryl asked. He wanted HJ to begin considering the feelings of those he was avoiding at the hotel.
            Hyuk-jae considered this for a moment before responding. “I can text my friend, Joon. His sister is my manager. He’ll let her know that I’m okay.” Hyuk-jae noticed Darryl’s face quivering slightly. He was clearly uneasy about this runaway.
            This good man deserves more of an explanation, Hyuk-jae figured. “Well, it’s like this. Right now, I feel as though I’m on parole after a long prison sentence. The people around me mean well, but it’s not like I ever wanted to be famous. I just fell in love with hip hop and grew a passion for expressing myself creatively with it. The fans who enjoy my songs have made me rich, but they have also pushed me into a cell. A cell that I can’t buy my way out of.”
            Darryl shook his head up and down slowly to acknowledge that he understood. The young man was obviously conflicted. He was experiencing a conundrum familiar to other elite talents: How to share one’s gifts on the world stage while retaining individual freedom to walk the earth undisturbed? When they were only ten yards from where his car was parked, Darryl asked, “When is your next show?”
            “Tuesday,” Hyuk-jae answered glumly. He felt like a child about to be sent to his room for misbehaving. He then perked up and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to visit Woodstock. It’s the site of one of the most iconic events in rock and roll history, isn’t it?”
            Darryl knew where this conversation was going, so he tried to refocus HJ’s attention on the possible consequences of his absence. He said, “Actually, that Woodstock event happened in Bethel Woods, about sixty miles southwest of Woodstock. Also, I don’t want anyone coming after me for kidnapping a celebrity.”
            Hyuk-jae smiled. He felt as though this was the beginning of a short debate that he was about to win. “If I can use your phone, I can text my friend. Once he notifies my manager, they’ll use a stand-in for the rehearsals. As long as I’m back in time for the concert, there’ll be no problems,” Hyuk-jae said with practiced and unwavering confidence. He finished stating his case by raising one eyebrow and flashing a broad smile.
            Darryl stood by the driver’s side door of his car, looking over the rooftop at HJ, who waited expectantly for the passenger’s door to be unlocked. He knew that HJ was employing every bit of his charm, but he also felt the young man’s overwhelming need and pain. He gave his car’s keyring a double tap, and after two audible chirps, they both entered the car. Once seated, Darryl offered HJ his phone and said, “Text your buddy.”

***

            Cool, damp air caressed Hyuk-jae’s face with the touch of an invisible cloud. He jerked awake and was momentarily disoriented. “What . . . Where?” he asked himself, noticing the grogginess in his voice. Upon seeing the dashboard of the car, he remembered what had transpired and quickly came fully awake. “Oh right,” he murmured. With the back of his left wrist, he wiped away the drool that had begun drying at the corner of his mouth. A digital display clock read 4:00 AM above the blank navigation display screen. The motor was turned off, but the windows had been left open a crack. Through the windshield, he saw that they had parked in a gravel driveway alongside a small blue house clad in pine board siding. Above its entryway, a weak yellow light illuminated the short walkway. The white screen door was closed, but the red-cedar-stained wooden door married to it was open, and a much brighter white light inside bade him to enter.
            Hyuk-jae entered an impeccably clean and orderly two-bedroom, ranch-style home with rustic decor. The light that beckoned him in came from the kitchen off to his left. Deer antlers held four curly energy-saving bulbs above a kitchenette table. On the table was a sheet of paper with a message written by a thin, black felt marker. Four words were written on it: Make yourself at home.
            His bladder was about to explode. To his right, along a short hallway, he saw three doors: one on the left, the next on the right, and the third straight ahead. The third door must be the bathroom, he thought, and it was. After relieving himself, Hyuk-jae returned to the living room and sprawled out on a large brown leather couch where he quickly fell back to sleep.

***

            It was not the cold hand of nature that woke him at eight o’clock in the morning but the smell of coffee percolating in the kitchen that did the honors. Hyuk-jae’s eyes opened to see Darryl sitting at the kitchenette table, reading something on his smartphone. “Good morning,” Hyuk-jae said cheerfully. He wanted to leave no doubt about how grateful he was for Darryl’s hospitality.
            “Oh, good morning to you,” Darryl replied. “Sleep well?” he asked.
            “Best sleep ever!” Hyuk-jae answered while hustling to the bathroom again.
            “I left a towel and washcloth on the tub, and there’s a new toothbrush still in its wrapper in the medicine cabinet,” Darryl said, just before the bathroom door closed.
            Several minutes passed before Hyuk-jae reemerged from the bathroom, showered and refreshed. His hair was wet and sticking flat to the sides of his head and ears. Darryl thought this made him appear two inches shorter. He knew HJ only had the clothes that he had danced in the night before, so he offered to take him to a local thrift shop to gear up for the next couple of days. Hyuk-jae was game to do whatever Darryl recommended. He was reveling in the serenity of his current circumstances.

***

            Darryl apologized to HJ for not being able to offer him bacon or sausage with his breakfast. He admitted that a heart scare in 2014 had convinced him to go vegan. Hyuk-jae did not mind. The locally sourced organic fruit and berries piled atop waffles smothered in vegan butter and drizzled with lite Vermont maple syrup were delicious. After eating, they sat at the kitchen table sipping coffee and tea, respectively, while getting to know each other better before planning their itinerary.
            Hyuk-jae learned that Darryl worked as an assistant principal for the local school district’s secondary school and coached their cross-country running teams in the fall. He still had a couple of weeks off before the new school year started, so HJ’s unexpected visit was not an inconvenience. Hyuk-jae noticed how intently Darryl listened to his brief life story. Darryl also concentrated on every sip of his coffee and grinned with satisfaction each time.
            The first item on their to-do list for Sunday was to go to a nearby thrift shop. Afterwards, they would eat lunch at a popular restaurant that specialized in farm-to-table dining. The weather was perfect for relaxing outside, with no rain in the forecast and low humidity. Darryl stated that he usually read a book or listened to fusion jazz while sitting by the Ashokan Reservoir just across the road from his house. He suggested that for the evening’s activity.

***

            Hyuk-jae entered the thrift shop, with his hoodie pulled close over his head. He was still a bit anxious about being out in public without his entourage. Darryl saw the elderly male proprietor behind a counter flinch when he looked at HJ. It was not at all from recognizing the K-pop star but from suspecting that this hooded young man was up to no good. Darryl immediately assuaged the man’s fear by saying, “Afternoon, sir. Please excuse my friend. He’s having a bad hair day.” That comment, accompanied by a cheerful show of pearly white teeth, put the man at ease. Darryl also suggested that HJ pickup some items for a day hike in the mountains the following afternoon. Now, the owner, who was fearful a minute ago, was thrilled that they had graced his establishment.

***

            To Hyuk-jae’s surprise, the restaurant they ate at that afternoon seated all guests family style. Woodstock was small enough that most of the locals knew their neighbors, but the summer visitors were treated with the same familiarity. Hyuk-jae was now wearing a loose-fitting sleeveless white V-neck shirt and thin khaki pants. His hair was tamed, and the anxiety of being discovered was abating. He followed Darryl’s lead and politely greeted the six other diners seated at their table, one at a time. While the diners spoke casually about the weather, Catskills hiking conditions, and the delectable way their food was prepared, Darryl made a point of smiling to all who were present. Taking this in, Hyuk-jae thought, What an amazing fellow.

***

            It was not until six in the evening that they sauntered across the road to relax by the reservoir. In two hours, the mosquitos would chase them back inside. Hyuk-jae wandered back and forth along the shore and picked up a few small rocks to skip across the surface of the water. Songs began forming in his head that were entirely inspired by his new acquaintance, Darryl, who was sitting cross-legged, listening to music from the buds in his ears and indeed smiling as he took in the pristine surroundings.

***

            On Monday morning, Hyuk-jae laughed at himself in the full-length mirror affixed to the bathroom door. He wore tan hiking boots, knee-high socks, hiking shorts with too many pockets, and a water-wicking T-shirt dyed with a camouflage design. Darryl was similarly dressed, but did not think it strange; he was accustomed to it. Darryl also carried a black plastic garbage bag and plastic gloves. Hyuk-jae was going to ask him about this but thought better of it. He did not want to come across as being completely naive about the great outdoors.
            The views from their hiking destination left Hyuk-jae speechless. Giant Ledge, in the heart of the Catskills, treated his eyes to surreal vistas. Darryl sat quietly, grinning ear to ear and breathing in deeply. Hyuk-jae also observed how Darryl relished every footstep along the way. As they began to leave the ledge, Darryl pulled on the green plastic gloves he was carrying and opened his garbage bag. They slowly made their way back to the parking lot, and Darryl picked up every scrap of trash he came across, mostly snack wrappers, pieces of cloth, and a few plastic water bottles.
            On the drive back to Woodstock after their hike, Hyuk-jae’s emotions swayed back and forth from sadness to excitement. He was sad that his running away episode would end the next day, but excited to share with the world how it inspired him. Of course, he would share this through songs.
            A new album was forming in his mind. He thought he would title it The Real Woodstock: Peace & Happiness. He never heard Darryl speak unkindly to anyone, so one of the songs he would call “Right Speech.” Other titles this life excursion planted inside of him included: “Listen with Love” that reflected the way Darryl paid close attention to what everyone was saying, “Just Smile” was what Darryl did all the time, and “Everything Mindfully” was the way Darryl cherished each sip, bite, and sight he took in.

***

            “Did you remember to text your friend?” Darryl asked HJ as he took the southbound entrance lane to the New York Thruway in Kingston. He was driving two exits to Interstate 84 in Newburgh. From there, they would head east across the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. Directly across that bridge was a Metro-North railroad station. The train would take just over an hour to get to Grand Central Station.
            With a teasing grin, Hyuk-Jae said, “Yes, Dad, it’s all taken care of. Joon called his not-so-happy sister, and she arranged to have my security team waiting on the platform. They told me to exit from the third train car.”
            Darryl shook his head affirmingly. The confused and hurting young man who had stood before him after Saturday’s festival was nowhere to be found. He assumed that HJ’s renewed spirit was one of the benefits of clean mountain air. “Truthfully, no one will recognize you. Not just because of the hoodie and jeans,” Darryl said, with true admiration.
            “You know, I’ll never be able to thank you enough,” Hyuk-jae said, holding back tears. “Just call that number I gave you if you ever want to see me perform. You’ll always have backstage access.”
            Darryl chuckled before saying, “You know I’ll never be seen at a K-pop show. Never!”
            They looked at each other and began laughing hysterically.

***

            When HJ’s train pulled out of the station, Darryl made his way back toward the New York Thruway. On his car’s dashboard was a folded piece of paper with an international phone number and the name Joon had been written on it. As he approached the thruway, he took a moment to consider his options: south to New York City, or north to Woodstock . . .





September 11, 2022

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Flight to Lima



Flight to Lima

J.T. Jefferson




        Those incessant screams are enough to make me want a drink, and I’ve been a teetotaler for all of my forty-seven years, Valarie thought while fighting the urge to cover her ears.

        “How childish would that look?” she whispered into the air. A middle-aged Hispanic woman pressing the palms of her hands against her ears as if she were an eight-year-old child blotting out the sounds of an accordion. The infant’s screams reverberated off the Mexico City International Airport’s rafters. Valarie prayed, and said, “God, please don’t let that baby be on my flight to Lima.”

        Valarie had survived her share of mothering. She had no children, and was never married, but being the oldest of five siblings came with parenting responsibilities. Both her parents worked two jobs to provide her and her siblings with a comfortable life. They were raised in Mexico City and attended private schools. Valarie saw the work that went into supporting a family and wanted no part of it.

        Teaching history at a local public high school afforded Valerie opportunities to indulge her passion for archeology. During school holidays and summer recess breaks, she visited ancient Mayan ruins throughout Mexico and Guatemala. All the guides at the ruins were multilingual and usually spoke English to accommodate the majority of the tourists. Valarie enjoyed going into more depth with the guides in Spanish, their shared language.

        This trip to Lima was the first leg in her long dreamed of exploration of Peru and the ancient Inca civilization. She was especially excited about touching the stones of Machu Picchu. All of that awaited her if she could survive the cries of that baby.

        Valarie was grateful that her brother, Guillermo, was a pilot for Aeromexico Airlines. This gave her discounted flight privileges reserved for the families and friends of airline employees. Valarie took full advantage of this benefit, and the stamps of many nations on her passport were proof of that. Being on standby status was the only drawback to discount tickets. Full-fare customers were seated first, and if there was space on the plane, standby passengers were seated by priority-ranked order. Guillermo had worked for Aeromexico for a dozen years, so Valarie was sure she would get an unsold seat.

        “Valarie Hernandez to Gate 52 please,” an airline employee called over the terminal’s P.A. system. The announcement was first spoken in Spanish and immediately repeated in English.

        Valerie smiled as she watched the mother try to comfort her baby by rocking the child in her left arm, while simultaneously struggling to screw the cap on a bottle of formula with her right hand.

        One of the many prices people pay for sex, Valarie thought. She stood, stretched out her slightly plump five-foot-three-inch body, grabbed the handle of her red carryon suitcase, and rolled it over to Gate 52.

        Another perk to being related to an employee of Aeromexico was the empty first-class seats that were allowed to be filled by those with employee discount tickets. Today, for this five-hour-and-forty-six-minute flight from Mexico City to Lima, Valarie was assigned to seat 1A. As soon as she stowed her luggage in the overhead bin, and before she could adjust her seat for maximum comfort, a male flight attendant asked if she would like something to drink. Looking at the eight-ounce bottle of water in her cup holder, Valarie said, “I’m fine for now, thank you.”

        Relieved she was not bumped from this flight due to it being sold to capacity, Valarie began to relax while the remaining passengers boarded the plane and took their seats. She checked out the in-flight entertainment options. To her surprise, many classic movies and television shows were available to watch: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicholson, the original Twilight Zone series hosted by Rod Serling, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The mere thought of sitting back and enjoying a movie or two made her hungry. Lunch would be served as soon as the plane reached its cruising altitude, so Valarie took a peek at the menu placed neatly in a gray net attached to the wall in front of her.

        The last group of passengers to board the plane included the woman with the agitated baby who had been screaming in the terminal. Seeing them, Valerie was thankful that the baby was now ravenously sucking on the nipple of a bottle of cream-colored formula. That sight caused Valarie to turn her attention to the lunch menu in her right hand. With the index finger of her left hand, she began scanning the list of meal options. Her long, pointed red fingernail stopped on the only vegan dish being offered, Vegan Enchilada. Valarie thought it sounded delicious.

        Moments after the lighted seatbelt signs were turned off, the flight attendants began going from row to row jotting down the meal choices of passengers seated in first class. The process was a bit cruder in the economy section of the cabin. Two stewardesses pushed heated carts through the aisles and offered each passenger one of two choices: chicken parmesan or spaghetti and steamed vegetables. Back in first class, Valarie ordered the vegan enchilada and a can of cranberry juice.

        The steward who took Valarie’s order also phoned into the cockpit and began writing down whatever he was being told over the phone. Sitting in the front row gave Valerie an idea of what her brother’s work environment must be like. Since the pilots’ door remained locked during flights, there was a two-way hatch alongside the cockpit door that allowed food and drinks to be delivered to the pilots safely. Valarie wondered if there was a bathroom in there as well.

        Thank God for first class, Valarie thought, as she slowly chewed her last fork full of enchilada. She had poured the remaining few sips of cranberry juice from the can into a glass. She swirled the bright red juice in the glass, pretended it was fine wine by giving it a whiff under her nose, and swallowed a gulp to wash down her lunch.

        “Delightful ,” Valarie said so quietly that no one seated nearby heard. At home, lunch was always followed by an hour-long nap, planned or unplanned, so Valarie decided to wait on watching a movie until she awoke.

        Before long, Valarie was jolted awake by the all-too-familiar wailing noises. From somewhere back in the economy section, the infant was at it again. For Valarie, fingernails scraping a chalkboard would have been preferable to that baby’s cries. The passenger sitting next to her in seat 1B appeared to be fast asleep. How could anyone sleep through this noise? Valarie wondered. Perplexed by the absence of movement around her, she unbuckled her seatbelt to stand up and have a look around.

        There was no movement anywhere on the plane. No flight attendants roamed the aisles, no one was standing to stretch their legs, and no one was heading to or from the bathrooms. Valarie noticed that two of the flight attendants were seated in their pull-down seats, and they slumped over each other as though they had passed out from too much alcohol. The baby screamed again, and Valarie headed down her aisle in the direction of the baby’s cries. Valarie was also beginning to realize that people were slumped over in every seat.

        “Hello, wake up! Can anybody hear me? Wake up!” she shouted in a shaky voice.

        Valarie found the baby lying in the aisle near the back of the cabin. The infant’s white face had turned pink from the work of her mighty vocal cords. Yellow vomit coated the white bib, and her pudgy arms reached up reflexively toward her mother. Valarie knelt on the floor and began rubbing the baby’s belly with her right hand and shaking her seated and dangling mother with her left hand. The mom’s body felt cold and clammy. Valarie jerked her left hand away and stared at the mother’s body. The chest did not rise and fall. No breathing sounds escaped from her mouth or nose, and her skin was ashen.

        “Oh, God!” she blurted out. The other passengers seated around the baby’s mother looked similar. “Everybody’s dead!”

        Valarie picked up the now cooing baby and hustled back to the front of the cabin. She held the baby against her with one hand and banged on the cockpit door with the other.

        “Help! Help! There’s been an accident. Everybody’s dead!” she shouted as she hammered away at the door.

        From the right side of her peripheral vision, Valarie saw a piece of paper slide down from the two-way hatch alongside the cockpit door. The paper landed on a small counter littered with similar pieces of paper. Looking closely, Valarie could see that they were meal check-off sheets. The flight’s captain had chosen chicken parmesan, and the co-pilot had the spaghetti and vegetables. Reading the other sheets, Valarie found only one with a different meal choice. Circled in red, for seat 1A, the meal choice was vegan enchilada.

        The realization of their predicament was numbing. Valarie carried the baby over to seat 1A and slowly lowered herself back into the seat. The baby’s huge black pupils stared up at her without blinking. “Can you fly this plane?” she asked the baby. The baby smiled at the gentle sound of Valarie’s voice. Ignorance is truly bliss, she thought .

        Valarie began humming a lullaby to keep the baby soothed as she stood up and placed the baby in the seat. She continued humming when she opened the overhead bin above them to retrieve her cell phone from her carryon bag. The large black smartphone made her smallish hands look tiny. She turned it on by pressing a side button with her right thumb. In a few moments, the phone’s screen came to life. Maybe Guillermo can figure this out, she hoped.

        Using the WhatsApp feature, Valarie sent a message to Guillermo. She communicated with her siblings with the app to avoid getting lost in anyone’s long list of texts or full voicemail boxes. She typed, “HELP!”

        “What’s going on?” Guillermo replied.

        “Flight AM46 to Lima is in trouble,” she responded to him as specifically as possible. She did not trust the app to keep them connected while she was in flight.

        “What do you mean?” he asked.

        “The food was poisoned. I was the only one who ate the vegan dish, and there’s a baby alive as well,” she typed her answer with tears welling up in her eyes. A tear landed on the phone’s screen, and she watched it drip down.

        “Did you say there’s a baby alive? Does that mean everyone’s dead?” he asked.

        Not wanting her brother to think this was a sick joke, she typed, “YES! YES! YES!”

        After a long pause, Guillermo replied, “The Peruvian authorities are aware of a problem. The pilots had not reported in as required. The plane is on autopilot, and will fly beyond Lima and over the Pacific until it runs out of fuel.”

        Valarie wanted to type, I love you, but their connection was lost. She looked away from the phone to the baby now sleeping in seat 1A. “You won’t sleep for long, will you?” she whispered. Valarie walked back to the baby’s mother to get the bottle of formula. Upon returning, she stood at the food counter littered with the slips of meal choices.

        “This time, I’ll choose the spaghetti and vegetables,” she said with a coy grin. Before putting the meal into a knee-high oven, Valarie placed a small portion of vegetables into a blender used for mixing drinks. “That bit will be for the baby.”

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Outhouse



The Outhouse


Milton Porter’s great grandfather, Mitch, built their farmhouse during the late 1800s. Milton could not be sure of the exact year it was completed, but he did know that it took on a few additions over the past century.The house was not wired for electricity, so oil lamps and candles provided light in the evenings. However, the original homestead was modern for its time. It did not have the traditional fireplace; instead, an oil-burning furnace emitted heat through metal vents, each a foot in diameter. There was no plumbing for a sink, a toilet, or a bathtub. Water was drawn from a well a few feet from the stairs out back, and an outhouse sat even farther back, partially hidden from view by a relatively young, twenty-foot-high beech tree.

Over the decades, the Porters’ home increased in size to accommodate the growing family and modern amenities. A storage room was built onto the back of the house; next to that, a kitchenette and a bathroom were added. A water pump was installed in the basement, and a screened-in porch was attached to the front of the house. The old well was sealed shut by heavy planks of wood, but the outhouse was left untouched. Even with a growing brood of Porters playing, working, and leaving the farm, no one ever acknowledged that the outhouse was still there.

One of Milton’s youngest children, Madison, would be the first to take a look into the outhouse since the 1950s. Madison’s heartthrob, eleven-year-old Katie Carter, would stop by with her mother to get a jar of homemade applesauce from Madison’s mom. Madison knew that Katie would only be there for as long as their moms could hold a conversation, so Madison sought a place close by to have a moment of privacy with her. Katie’s thick and wavy red hair framed plump dimpled cheeks lightly sprinkled with freckles. Madison longed to kiss her full lips while getting lost in her hazel eyes.

The barn would not be a good place since dad was acting as a nurse for one of their sick heifers. The other outbuildings were in clear view from the front of the house, and there would not be enough time to go into the woods. Madison gingerly walked around to the back of the house while looking at the ground. Madison took notice of the graying wooden base of the outhouse. Maybe that’s a good place to kiss a girl, Madison thought hopefully.

Uncut grass, reaching three feet tall, browned in the sun in front of the outhouse door. Shade from the beech tree only covered the south side of the structure. Scattered among the grass were milkweed plants, whose green leaves and white, pink, and red flowers added splashes of color to the drab appearance of the split and cracked wood slats that the ancient shitter was made from. A host of monarch butterflies danced around the milkweed perennials. Madison took this all in before taking a deep breath and opening the outhouse door.

It was unremarkable. A rectangular wooden handle dangled from a rusty orange nail. The door was cut short on both the bottom and the top by two inches. When Madison swung the door open, it creaked and nearly fell off its two rusted triangular hinges. There were no windows, and the roof was pitched at a forty-five-degree angle. The floor consisted of packed-down dirt with the feel and color of slate. Although there was no smell, Madison’s nose crinkled at the sight of the long bench with a circular hole in its center. “This would not be the place to kiss a girl,” Madison said quietly; at the same moment, the outhouse door swung shut with a loud bang and rattle.

***

“Aagh!” Madison screamed and jumped when the door slammed, and connected with both butt cheeks in the process. While one hand rubbed a sore behind, the other pushed open the outhouse door. Madison’s jaw hung slack, with an open mouth and pink tongue quickly becoming parched by the sudden grip of the dry heat. Brown eyes bulged from their sockets while looking in every direction with confusion. “Whaaaat...the...freak happened?” The Porter home and the Vermont countryside were gone!

The greenery that provided an endless background color to the world that Madison was familiar with was replaced by shades of brown and red everywhere. Not one bush or tree was in sight. Rough tan sand at the edges of a winding river melded into jagged brown and red rock cliffs that rose to extraordinary heights before leveling to plateaus. Looking around, Madison could see that the giant cliffs created walls along both sides of the murky green river that displayed white froth when the waves struck rocks. This is grand! Madison thought, only then realizing that the outhouse was gone.

Not knowing what to do or where to go, Madison began following the river downstream. Sweat evaporated instantly, so with drying skin, Madison considered wading into the water. “Who opened the oven door?” Madison asked the empty sky while marveling at the variety of natural rock edifices. High up and not too far ahead, the edges of a few cliffs formed the appearance of an eagle spreading its wings. Wow, that’s neat! Madison thought just before turning around to the sound of splashing.

Approaching in a canoe, dressed in traditional Hualapai tribal clothing, was a girl about Madison’s age—eleven or twelve. She was standing as she paddled. She was only around four feet and ten inches tall, so Madison initially thought that she was sitting. Her dark brown skin made her facial features hard to see against the brown background of the environment. Thick black straight hair extended to her shoulders, with bangs touching her eyebrows in front. Madison eventually made out her round face, puffy cheeks, and full light brown lips. “Gam’yu,” she said, while bringing the canoe to a stop.

Madison’s ears never heard the language she spoke, but it was clear from her smile that she was saying hello. When Madison spoke, the Hualapai language flowed fluently. How did that happen? Madison thought that maybe, the outhouse was the opposite of the Tower of Babel. “Hello. Who are you, and where am I?” Madison asked.

“I am A’Dora Whatoname,” she exclaimed proudly. “This is the Hakataya,” A’Dora said while nodding toward the river. “You are on the lands of my people, the Hualapai tribe,” she finished with a confused look on her face as she noticed Madison’s clothing. Madison was wearing ratty blue Pro-Keds sneakers and blue jean overalls atop a dingy white t-shirt. Dried manure splatters were caked onto the legs of the overalls.

“I’m Madison from Vermont. It’s so hot here. Aren’t you burning up in those clothes?” Madison asked. A’Dora wore a full-length light blue dress with yellow, orange, red, and black stripes lining its hem. On top of that was a light blue blouse with the same colors waving around the edges. If that was not enough, what Madison thought was a red blanket was wrapped around her shoulders.

“Today I will take part in the Maturity ceremony,” she replied.

“What’s that?” Madison asked.

“It’s what girls do to become women,” A’Dora answered, a bit surprised. “I will do the bird dance today,” she stated proudly while raising her arms to show off her intricately designed outfit.

“Will there be water to drink at the ceremony?” Madison asked, while gripping one side of the canoe to remain steady.

Looking more closely at Madison, A’Dora said,” You look pale. You must be thirsty and hungry.” She held out her left hand and said, “Come onto my canoe. There will be a lot to eat and drink at the party. You can watch me dance, too.”

Madison took her hand and stumbled into the boat.

***

Madison’s head bobbed to the rhythm of the drums and the chanting of the musicians, who provided music for A’Dora and three other girls performing the bird dance. Having guzzled plenty of water and gorged on baked beans, cornbread, and soup, Madison regained strength with the energy of the celebration.

The sun was setting as the girls stomped and spun, with their arms outstretched and their dresses whirling in the cooling air. “This is so awesome!” Madison shouted just as an unknown ingredient in the recently consumed soup kicked in. Sitting with legs crossed, Madison closed both eyes, and the next forward bob connected Madison’s head with the ground.

***

“Ouch!” Madison yelled when the outhouse door connected. With a shaky right hand checking for bleeding or swelling of the forehead, Madison’s left hand pushed the door open. Tall grass scraped against it. A monarch butterfly that had just landed on a pink milkweed flower when Madison entered the outhouse was still there. The shadows on the south side of the outhouse had also not progressed.

Madison ran past the well, through the farmhouse shed, and into the kitchen. “No running in the house,” Mrs. Marie Porter reminded her child. She was sitting at the kitchen table with Mrs. Carter and Katie. They were drinking homemade iced tea. Normally, the site of Katie would have stopped Madison cold—but not now.

“Hi, A’Dora,” Madison greeted Katie and then sprinted upstairs to get to a computer.

“Who’s A’Dora?” Katie called up the stairs.

“Work today, please,” Madison begged the Apple computer. Internet reliability in rural Vermont was fair at best, so praying to the sleek silver machine with a black screen was commonplace. Madison’s right index finger slid over the built-in mouse pad, Madison clicked on the Google Chrome icon and then typed “Hualapai” on the search field. What came up caused his dimpled cheeks to smile broadly. “Yes!” Madison cheered.

There on the screen was Eagle Point—the rock formations on the cliffs of the west rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I was really there, Madison thought. Scrolling down the screen, Madison saw pictures of a river winding through the Grand Canyon. “That’s Hakataya!” Madison said out loud to an empty room, except that on this webpage, it was called the Colorado River.

Scanning through all of the attractions on the Hualapai reservation made Madison want to return. There was a Sky Walk with a glass floor hanging high above the canyon. There was a zip line, a ranch that hosted mock gunfights, and helicopter rides. Afraid of helicopters, Madison was happy that mom and dad would not pay for a ride if asked. However, everything else seemed to be so much fun.

Scrambling onto the floor, Madison reached under the computer desk for a mayonnaise jar stuffed with dollar bills. “This time, I’ll be prepared,” Madison promised while stuffing money into the deep pockets of the overalls. “Outhouse, here I come,” Madison proclaimed when exiting the room and zipping back downstairs.

***

The chipped and frayed door was ajar. Madison skipped forward more hastily, hoping that the magic of the place was not somehow broken. Two palm-sized green and white hummingbirds flew out from the outhouse. Madison did not notice them. Birdwatchers familiar with the Green Mountains of Vermont would have known immediately that the hummingbirds were far from home.

With white teeth showing through a wide smile, Madison stood inside the outhouse, looking out toward the farmhouse. “Goodbye home, and hello Grand Canyon,” Madison said, pulling the wooden handle to shut the door. From the outside, two stranded hummingbirds heard a human voice saying, “One, two, three, here I come…”

In Vermont, the outhouse stood silent with its door closed. No child from Vermont appeared out of nowhere at the Grand Canyon. Instead, when Madison pushed open the door, a lush green jungle awaited.

***

“Whoa!” Madison said in mid-step. Pro-Keds were about to run along what was supposed to be the Colorado River, but two steps would have sent Madison falling down a cliff one thousand feet or more high. Green tree-covered mountains pierced the powder blue sky and appeared scattered upon the earth as if they were the remains of a giant’s jagged teeth. A narrow man made trail replaced the outhouse floor. It was packed-down dark brown dirt, with river stones lining each side. The trail extended downward to the right and vanished at a sharp corner. To the left, the trail seemed to ascend to the heavens. A bright light awaited up ahead at a natural rock platform.

This place was not as hot as the Grand Canyon, but the temperature must have been in the eighties Fahrenheit. After just a few steps, Madison was sweating profusely. Yuk! I almost prefer the dry heat, Madison mused as salty sweat dribbled into each eye, causing them to itch and burn.

A man and a woman came up the trail. Both wore tight green hiking shorts, standard tan Timberland boots, knee-high white socks, and khaki green short-sleeved shirts. Water bottles were attached to the belts of their shorts, and the blond, sleek, blue-eyed woman carried walking sticks. The green-eyed gentleman with her had red hair and was about the same age. Madison figured that the couple were in their twenties, just a bit older than the eldest Porter sibling, nineteen-year-old Dennis. “Excuse me,” Madison slowed the couple’s speedy trekking. “Where are we?” Madison asked.

With an Irish accent, the man responded, “This is Camino de Inca or the Inca Trail; both names are correct.”

“We are in the Sacred Valley on our way to Machu Picchu,” the beautiful blond woman added. Madison was surprised that she did not have an Irish accent as well. She sounded like an overly cheerful Valley Girl from California. In any case, she was definitely an American.

“Machu Picchu?” Madison giggled. It was such a funny-sounding place.

“You see that light up ahead?” the woman asked. Madison nodded to acknowledge the obvious. “That’s the Sun Gate. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth,” the woman said gaily. Her Irish companion put his palms together in mock prayer. “See, that’s Kevin’s way of saying amen,” she explained.

Madison followed the couple up the trail. The river stones increased to cover the entire four foot-width of the trail. The air became refreshingly cooler as the path opened to a magnificent view of acres upon acres of ancient ruins. Every tourist present stood in silence, awed by what they saw and subconsciously knowing that words could not adequately describe the scene.

Curious about this never-before-heard-of wonder, Madison listened to a tour guide, who began explaining the history of Machu Picchu to his clients. Looking at the white name tag clipped to the guide’s shirt, Madison saw that his name was Charlie. Charlie explained to his group that he was a direct descendant of the people mistakenly called Incas by the Conquistadors. The Spaniards heard the people saying the word “inca” in their native language, Quechua, and thought that they were referring to themselves, but that was their word for king. Madison began to wonder how much of the history taught in school was wrong.

Charlie went on to explain that the fifteenth-century kings of the Andean Mountains of Peru, and beyond, did not always conquer by force. Alliances were made, and the king took concubines from all regions of his kingdom. This was the reason why the Conquistadors had such an easy time taking over the empire. It was not their guns and diseases, but the fact that they came upon an empire dwindling from civil war. This civil war was caused by the half-siblings born to a now deceased king’s wife and concubines. These half-siblings were fighting each other for control of the empire.

A storm was brewing. Initially, Madison thought that the cool breezes were solely the result of being high in the mountains, but clouds were becoming more noticeable on the horizon. Charlie went on to explain that Machu Picchu was a university. The best minds from all over the empire were brought there to study astronomy, physics, agriculture, and more. Madison marveled at the buildings made from intricately cut stones placed against one another at specific angles that did not require cement. More amazing was how the structures were aligned with the sun and the stars. It was only when raindrops began weighing down Madison’s overalls that Madison realized that Charlie and his tourists had moved on.

Madison began running back down the Inca Trail to find cover from the showers. The sheen on the trail’s river rocks should have read “Slippery when wet,” but it was too late for Madison. Instead of gripping, Madison’s right foot began slipping, and Madison tumbled off the trail and into the abyss. This will take awhile, Madison thought while plummeting to what Madison believed would be sure death, but the fall ended abruptly.

***

Staring up at the angled ceiling of the outhouse, with a sore back, is how Madison’s fall from the Inca Trail ended. First my head, now my back. These trips will kill me, Madison thought. This time, while Madison was exiting the outhouse, Madison’s mom was standing next to the well, placing trash into a metal garbage can, to be burned there. The can had rusted to brown over the years, its rim blackened by the frequent flames.

“So, there you are,” Mrs. Porter snapped, arching her eyebrows and frowning. “You know, little Katie came here to play with you, and you just ignored her. You didn’t say hello to Mrs. Carter, and you called Katie A’Dora,” she continued while shaking her head in disbelief.

“I’m sorry, mom. I’ll call them right now to apologize,” Madison said with all honesty.

***

To Mrs. Porter, Madison had just run past her, entered the outhouse, and exited within a few seconds, drenched with sweat.

“Is that your new playhouse?” she asked, glancing at the outhouse.

“Oh, I was just checking to see if the wood could be used for something else,” Madison lied. To avoid any more questions, Madison said, “I better call the Carters,” and ran inside the house.

Next to the narrow yellow rotary phone affixed to a kitchen wall was a list of neighbors and their phone numbers. The list was neatly handwritten on a white lined sheet of paper. All of the dairy farms on Cross Creek Road were listed in order of address, not alphabetically. This was done purposely. Madison remembers mom saying that when her children reached the age of four or five, they could name every family on the road, but they could not yet read well enough to spell their neighbors’ names. Madison recalled her concern that with accidents common on farms, all of her children needed to know how to identify neighbors’ numbers on the list as if they were walking along the road.

Madison thought that it was cool to use the old rotary phone. Sticking a finger into a numbered hole, rotating it to a metal stopper, and releasing it to zip back into position was kind of musical to Madison’s ears. No need for the list, Katie’s number was known by heart.

Mrs. Carter picked up the phone on the first ring, “Hello.”

“Hi, Mrs. Carter. It’s Madison. I’m sorry I didn’t say hello earlier,” Madison spoke quickly. Those now soggy overalls were becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

Mrs. Carter laughed politely and said, “It’s only been a few minutes, honey. I just got back home. Marie’s applesauce will be such a tre...”

“Oh, is Katie home?” Madison interrupted. Knowing that Mrs. Carter was talkative, and wanting to prepare for the next outhouse adventure, Madison forgot about being patient.

“No, sweetie. I left her at the Hucks’. She’s playing with Anna right about now,” Mrs. Carter replied.

“Thank you. I’ll catch her later. Have a good day, Mrs. Carter,” Madison finished.

“You too, dear,” said Mrs. Carter.

Madison did not hear Mrs. Carter’s goodbye, having hastily placed the handset back in its cradle and bolting upstairs to change clothes.

***

Madison was now wearing hastily tied dark brown generic work boots, black shorts, and a black t-shirt with a picture of a singer named Prince on the front, sitting on a motorcycle with “Purple Rain” written in purple above his head. “I wonder where I’ll end up this time,” Madison said, while reaching for the wooden handle on the outhouse door. The next three seconds would provide answers.

***

“Egypt!” Madison yelled. Madison stood up jerkily and nearly fell off of a boat. An attractive Muslim woman wearing a hijab steadied the young American stowaway. Her name was Marwa. She had golden skin, large brown eyes, and a medium build. Marwa was neither tall nor short, but she was assertive. Madison was aware that Marwa noticed the unaccompanied child appear on the river taxi, she immediately patted the seat beside her and beckoned Madison to sit. Now, no longer unaccompanied, Madison read the Arabic letters on the boat’s bow, saw the name “Nile,” and became exuberant.

Madison had just completed a research paper on ancient Egypt. Initially terrified at the prospect of having the no-nonsense Mr. Scher as a history teacher, Madison now greatly appreciated him. Madison still had much to learn, but being able to explore Egypt as if an educated archeologist or anthropologist was better than a dream come true.

The prospect of touching the stones that ancient craftsman molded, feeling the sands of Africa, and maybe riding a camel all contributed to an anxiety attack. Madison began to wheeze with each breath. The wheezing intensified, and Madison grabbed Marwa’s arm. Madison looked her in the eyes, and silently mouthed “water” through trembling lips.

“You must be King Narmer,” Marwa joked as a more relaxed Madison sipped on a bottle of water. “The first ruler of ancient Egypt has returned home, nearly fainting with joy,” Marwa continued her teasing as the boat docked in the greater Cairo area, only a stone's throw from the Giza Necropolis. They disembarked from the boat, with Marwa holding Madison’s left hand protectively.

“I’m alright,” Madison insisted. “If I led an army out of southern Africa to create an empire that lasted several thousand years, I can walk without a mom holding my hand,” Madison said, a bit embarrassed. Marwa withdrew her hand but maintained a keen eye on this overly confident guest in her country.

The Necropolis required a means of transportation to see all of the major sites. Taxis, camels, and horses were available at the entrance. Madison huddled near a German family and snuck into their van when it was time to explore.

The family noticed and kindly smiled at Madison.

The mom said, “Nice shirt. My husband and I are big fans of Prince, you know.”

Madison ignored the caution tape in order to touch the stones that had fallen from the Great Pyramid of Giza. This behavior was repeated at the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. Maybe the stones will bring good luck, Madison hoped. The camel poop and vendors hawking cheap trinkets were minor distractions. The last coveted Giza location to see was the Great Sphinx. To Madison’s surprise, only the back of the Sphinx’s head could be seen from the nearest pyramid. It appeared small. Every published image of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx together made it seem as though the Sphinx was a humongous structure, in league with those giant stone triangles. Madison was miffed.

Madison encountered Marwa again on the way to the Sphinx. She was just about to mount a camel, and Madison hustled over to her. “Can I join you?” Madison asked with puppy dog eyes.

“You want to be seen with a mom?” Marwa replied sarcastically. Just then, the camel swung its head toward Madison and spat all over Prince. Marwa began laughing hysterically. Feeling bad for the little King Narmer, Marwa said, “Okay, climb on.” Madison’s face lit up as Marwa reached out her hand.

Stomach spasms joined along with the awkward sway of the camel, Madison held tightly to Marwa’s waist, for fear of becoming nauseous and dizzy and falling. As the humped-back Prince hater neared the Sphinx, Madison noticed a lot of trash littering the grounds. Speaking directly into Marwa’s right ear, Madison asked, “Why is there so much garbage here?” Marwa explained that light shows, fireworks, and concerts were held during the evenings, with the Sphinx as a backdrop.

The camel was stopped in front of the nose-less Sphinx. Madison got off first and then helped Marwa down. While Marwa was paying the camel’s owner for the ride, the camel turned its head toward Madison’s face and spat.

***

Water splattered Madison’s face from a crack in the door of the outhouse. “Hey, what’s this?” Madison asked while pushing the door open. Madison’s sixteen-year-old cousin Harry was spraying water from a hose connected to the back of the farmhouse. He was aiming directly at the seams in the outhouse door.

Harry laughed and said, “I saw you go in there a few seconds ago. Aunt Marie told me that you were inspecting the wood. Is that true? You want to build something?”

Madison thought about his earlier lie. Maybe it could become the truth.

Who wants to be knocked on the head, fall on one’s back, and get spit on the face? Also, what if the next trip is to Antarctica or the moon? I can freeze to death or suffocate in outer space, Madison thought and shivered. “Yeah, I want to build a cover for the snake pit behind the barn,” Madison told Harry.

“What snake pit?” Harry asked.

Madison realized at that moment that the mysterious area behind the family’s barn was not universally known. Similar to the outhouse, it was there, but went unnoticed. Could it also be a portal to other places? Madison’s eyebrows rose at the thought of this.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My Lunch with Ron and Stephen



My Lunch with Ron and Stephen



       On a recent Sunday, the usual dread of returning to the workday grind was absent. Replacing it was a giddiness last felt in my spirit on a Christmas Eve when I was a child of about seven years old who still believed in Santa Claus. Dimples on my cheeks appeared as bookends to a broad smile that revealed thousands of dollars’ worth of dental work. “Oh, I can’t believe this! I really, really can’t believe this!” my internal voice repeated.
       A small handsome Hispanic boy, who was being practically dragged onto the down escalator by a frantic young woman, smiled up at me as I exited Penn Station onto Eighth Avenue. He must have seen the child in me as I skipped by. In November, my birthday will mark half a century, but on this January morning, I am a kid on his way to a candy store.
       Taking the “3” train to 14th Street would have been the quickest way to get to The Butcher’s Daughter Juice Bar & Cafe on Hudson Street, but the walk down Eighth Avenue would calm my nerves. Since the age of 15, anxious excitement has triggered head-splitting migraines for me. Exercise releases those calming endorphins that are desperately needed when having lunch with two American icons: titans in their respective industries. “Deep, slow breaths, Jon. Deep, slow breaths,” I coached myself while my feet placed Madison Square Garden farther behind me.
       The Butcher’s Daughter doesn’t take reservations, so I planned to arrive 30 minutes early for my noon lunch date with Ron and Stephen. Hopefully, I could secure a table and bullshit with the waiter or waitress until my guests arrived. Even now, in his mid-60s with male pattern baldness leaving only a curtain of red hair around his head, Ron still looks like Richie Cunningham from Happy Days and Opie Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show. On first sight, only millennials and younger see Ron as a renowned director and producer. Today, I look forward to sharing with him how growing up middle class in Queens during the 1970s and 1980s was reminiscent of the 1950s Milwaukee of Happy Days. There were tree-lined streets that cast shadows on single-family homes with late-model Detroit steel automobiles in every driveway. My childhood summers were spent on a farm that harked back to Opie’s Mayberry and its more “innocent” times.
       “Oh my God! There is so much I want to talk about. I hope I’m not struck dumb with awe when I meet them.” An elderly Asian man with white slip-on sneakers looked at me questioningly as I approached 23rd Street. I realized my last statement was spoken aloud. If my brown skin could blush . . .
       As I waited to cross the next street, I discreetly placed my nose next to my left armpit and took a sniff. “Still fresh and clean,” I sung out while the blinking white walking symbol gave the all clear. Midway between 22nd and 21st streets, my legs began to shake. A wave of emotions nearly paralyzed me. Nervous sweat tingled beneath the surface of my skin. “No, please, no,” I whispered through trembling lips.
       My subconscious was reminding me of the extraordinary impact Stephen King’s novels have had on my life. After struggling to read until fourth grade in 1980, I was motivated to read Pet Sematary in 1983 when I saw the book on my mother’s night stand. That summer, while at my family’s old rundown farm in upstate New York, I completed the scary tale; my first novel. From that point forward, until her passing in 1999, I read every Stephen King novel published as soon as my mother had finished. It became our tradition. Every Mother’s Day, birthday, and Christmas, I would present my mother with Stephen’s latest offering. My mother and I were both captivated by horror stories. Years before Stephen King novels entered our lives, my mother would attempt to coax me into behaving by telling me fables about awful creatures who carried away naughty children.
       Gathering myself as I neared the intersection that gently curved from Eighth Avenue to Hudson Street, I reflected that voraciously reading novel after novel prepared me for the four college degrees I eventually earned. During the nearly 20 years since my mother’s death, I have kept up with just about all of Stephen’s books. However, as my eyes grow weary, audiobooks have become my go-to version.
       There is one author who I still turn pages to read. Secretly, I think Joe Hill now edges out Stephen as my favorite writer. I met Mr. Hill in Manhattan during a book signing for The Fireman. I asked him to write “I can’t wait to read your wicked shit.” on the inside of my copy. He was unaware that my “wicked shit” is an homage to Stephen, and it is the first and only novel I have completed.
       Nearing the entrance to the restaurant, I decided not to share with Stephen that I have a flame for another author. There were more pressing issues that I wanted to discuss with Ron and Stephen. Subjects that were worthier of their time.
       The Butcher’s Daughter’s interior appears as an elegantly repurposed barn. A short chipped white ladder hangs on a wall with potted leafy green plants on its slats. Each table is made of polished wood that could double as a large butcher’s block. As a party of four got up to leave, I hustled over to stake my claim on the table. A hefty black waiter looked at me, his eyes shifting to the dirty dishes in front of me. “It’s fine,” I said. “My friends are running late anyway.” It was just a little lie.
       Table secured, I had about 20 minutes to focus my thoughts. From Stephen’s tweets, I knew that he was appalled by the dealings of the current White House and much of Congress. His recent novella, Elevation, honestly illustrated the pointlessness of judging people by their differences.
       Once upon a time in the United States, citizens spoke proudly of being the world’s “melting pot,” liberating Europe from Nazi fascism, and tearing down the “iron curtain.” Many now ask, “What is this country coming to?” Fear and hate are at all-time highs. Fear of black people trying to live ordinary lives, fear of Muslims, fear of Hispanic immigrants. Men who abuse women being rewarded with lofty positions, and mass shootings being perpetrated by white men in suburbia: not by Muslims or blacks.
       Stephen’s critical political tweets, essay titled “Guns,” and voluntary discontinuation of the sale of his story Rage are evidence of a person who cares about his fellow man. And I cannot think of a human condition that has not been filmed by Ron. I had no doubt that they would provide pointed insight to my urgent question: “Where are our better angels?”
       I will share with Ron and Stephen this truth. In the early 1970s, a Harlem-raised African-American couple with eight children living in Queens bought an old farm in rural upstate New York. Each summer, until 1985, their children played with white farm children as earthy as Huckleberry Finn. They engaged with a burgeoning Amish community, and everyone treated them with respect. This happened in a unique place in the American tapestry. Hammond, New York, is no bigger than Mayberry. I was the seventh of those eight children—everyone knew my family, where we lived, and probably our frailties as well. Sharing with neighbors in times of abundance, and caring for neighbors in times of need, was simply part of being human. Hammond provided me with the most wonderful experiences of my life, which are memorialized in my memoirs. If I were to pitch our story for a television series, I would simply ask, “What if the Waltons were black and on Little House on the Prairie?”
       A yellow cab pulled up in front of the picture window. I was surprised at my calmness upon seeing his gruff red beard and partial red halo as Ron leaned in toward the driver before turning for the entrance. As soon as the cab pulled away, and before Ron entered the restaurant, a black Suburban took the cab’s place. A tall, lanky white man in his early 70s stepped out from the rear door of the Suburban. He wore simple glasses and had mostly gray hair with hints of black fading fast. It was Stephen. I took a deep breath and a sip of the water that the waiter had placed before me. “It’s time for lunch.”


1/14/19


Jonathan T. Jefferson is a lifelong New Yorker, and author of:
Mugamore: Succeeding without Labels — Lessons for Educators
FriesenPress 2013
Echoes from the Farm
FriesenPress 2017

Hyuk-jae: K-pop Runaway