Bunker

By Chiwan Choi

Poem

i don’t know
if everything they told me
is true,
about statues carved in stone
that blinked in the chilean sun,
about grandfather’s deal
with the russians to save the family
as the communists came.

these are questions
i allowed myself to forget in ‘99
soon after
mother asked me what
she should do
about the tumor
in her stomach.

it is a monday
for all of us—
sons, fathers,
street sweepers,
to forgotten things
on the pavement,
a box of books,
most of them in tact,
on 7th street.

my parents only taught me
what was given them,
this ability to spill
inward,
to hold our blood
inside us
in bowls made
from hollowed trees
until the weight
of what survives us
gives us comfort.

my father—
and mother too—
wanted me to learn
to keep my eyes
on the ending,
to call death
by a familiar name,
giving me god
so i can embrace it.

how mother—
and father too—
held me until
i was able
to release these poems
that cannot
save us,

to whistle down
the street
on the intermittent yellow paint
in the center,
to the fire,
to skeletons of ancestors,
to the disappearing shadows
of a neighbor that stood thinking,
to the glory
of these things
we have not known.

it is monday,
but how can i speak
of the sky,
a blue that isn’t blue,
when we are
in the basement food court
of a koreatown mall,
eating spicy burnt rice
from stone bowls,
sitting in these end of days
in this bunker
beneath
the world we have fought
to love
as father keeps himself
from smiling at me,
a bunker that will
not hold forever
but long enough
for mother to drop seaweed
on my food
with her wooden chopsticks,
long enough for me
to protest.

The two teenagers are making out on the sofa to my left, not two feet away. They kiss, then speak to each other in Spanish. Fabiola, my 3rd grade student, sits at the table with me, to my right, hunched over a word search for ‘winter.’ She’s never seen snow, a blizzard, or sleet. I tell her about snow storms in Buffalo, and the ‘Zero Visibility’ ice-cream. Her friend, she answers, who moved to L.A. from Colorado, has seen hail the size of Chicken McNuggets. Which are Fabiola’s favorite food.

In Spanish, the boy asks, “Does he speak Spanish?”

“No,” I say, “but I’m not stupid.”

I don’t know if he is Fabiola’s brother, I haven’t been introduced to any of the family members who walk through the room in which I tutor, the first one you enter when you walk through the front door. There’s a back entrance, and it’s only me who comes in front. I’ve seen Fabiola’s mother in the driveway, but she never leaves the back of the apartment, doesn’t come out to greet me or even take a look at me. I haven’t shaken her hand. I’m dealing only with Fabiola’s stepfather, who keeps toy cars on the shelves in the living room. They are models of souped-up Hondas and Toyotas and they come in all sizes. The biggest is operated with a remote control and has big ‘Toyo Tires’ decals on the sides.

The boy grins now, the girl looks scared. This might be the living room or the dining room. There’s not much dining or living in it, this is the first time Fabiola and I are not alone. I’m 42 and have had three accidents in three months, and I don’t have collision, so I’ve tied the passenger door shut with some rope. I drink cheap red wine, eight dollars a 1.5 liter bottle at California Market, no vintage. My wife’s and my teeth are turning blue.

Fabiola asks if she can go to the restroom. She takes her time while the teenagers giggle again and kiss. The boy is squat and wears a white hat backwards, the girl is short and has the face of a china doll. The boy puts his hand in one pocket and extracts a condom in a red wrapper. He holds it out to the girl but she won’t touch it.

Fabiola comes back and resumes her work on gloves, mittens and snow. It’s January. Outside it’s 80 degrees, and soon the boy and girl leave, and Fabiola is moving on to word clusters with animal names. In front of our table is a small altar for La Flaca, Santa Muerte. The Skinny One smiles, her bones clad in a red robe. A candle burns behind her, a matchbox-sized Ford Mustang stands at her feet.