She puts her eye to the window. It is bulletproof glass, papered over to block the harsh Angeleno sun and hide the iron bars that make the store look like a cage. A haphazard display of posters—frosty bottles of Budweiser, bikinied women, a rakish Joe Camel in sunglasses—but, in the center, a small square gap. Through this she focuses one eye on the man who moments earlier had bought a pack of Newports from her.
She had been breaking rolls of quarters, the finale to her morning ritual of refilling the cash register after emptying it into her lunch bag, now hidden in the cabinet with cleaning supplies. Jose, their night cashier from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., had just left. For a moment she thought perhaps the sound she heard was the roll hitting the edge of the counter. But there were more, and she thought, “Of course—gunshots!” and dropped to the ground, the holes in the rubber mat pressing into her knees. She waited. The squeal of tires. Then, the quiet stillness of the morning. The disruption passed so quickly she wondered if she had imagined it all. After several minutes, she peeked out the window. The view was the same as when she had opened up an hour ago, except now a body on the curb, sprawled in a way that reminded her of a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest.
“911, what is your emergency?”
She had only called 911 once before, several years ago, a month after they bought the store. A man had come in just after midnight to buy a lotto ticket. He stayed at the counter, scratching off the silver and sweeping the iridescent powder toward her.
“I won!” he shouted, looking around at the empty store for someone to congratulate him. He turned back to her and slapped the scratch-off onto the glass between them. This had originally been an open checkout counter, but they had sealed it off with bulletproof glass on the advice of a church friend who owned a gas station in the area. Bulletproof glass, a door, and a wall transformed the cashier booth into a display case in which she, along with the cigarettes, condoms, and lotto tickets, greeted customers.
“I won,” he said again. “Twenty dollars. You owe me twenty dollars.”
She looked closely at the scratch-off. All of the squares were exposed, showing different numbers that did not match. She shook her head.
“Three,” she said, holding up three fingers. She pointed at the scratch-off card. “Only one.”
The man sucked his teeth.
“That’s a twenty. You speak English? Look, twenty!”
She shook her head, frustrated. She held up three fingers and tried again.
“No same. Have to be three same.”
The man slammed his fist against the glass, which made her jump back. He slammed the glass again and again, unleashing a torrent of words too fast for her to understand until he began to chant to the rhythm of his fists, “Chink bitch!”
Out of all the English she had learned since immigrating to the United States, “chink” was the word she knew best, by far. Unlike her imprecise grasp of the rest of the language, haphazardly flipping r’s and l’s or j’s and z’s, using the word “oven” as a blanket term for every kitchen appliance, she knew that “chink” was a derogatory term for Chinese. It was often followed by exactly that word, the first half, “Chi-,” delivered in the same manner as “chink,” followed by a drawn-out, smirking “-neeez.” She also understood that the word was not meant to misidentify her country of origin, but rather to express that it did not matter where she was from because here, in America, she and her husband and her children and the Filipino nurses at her mother’s nursing home and the Chinese men in white aprons constantly smoking by the dumpsters near her apartment were all Chinks.
She knew how to say it, spat out like phlegm; how to spell it, most properly in loops of spray paint against walls; how to use it, against faces that looked like hers to see if they would flinch, the way hers did now. She grabbed the phone and sank down beneath the counter, the spiral cord pulling taut:
“911, what is your emergency?”
She stuttered repeatedly over the operator’s questions about the store address, the glass above her head shuddering.
“Help me please.”
She opens the door an inch, and shuts it again. Then, shaking her head, she shoves the door open and steps out, towel in hand. The bird-man lies still, a sacrifice on an altar of asphalt, blood draining into the sidewalk grooves forming neat lines and corners.
“Hey,” she whispers, looking around, her hand still touching the door.
Crouching down, she calls out louder, “Hey! You okay?”
The man does not move. She crawls closer and grimaces. There is blood coming from his neck and somewhere else. The morning is so quiet that she can hear the ambulance coming from many blocks away. She touches his hand, and feels it is still warm. When the ambulance pulls up, she raises her towel as if to flag them down, but they have already arrived. They have arrived, they murmur into their radios, they are on the scene, and they brusquely motion for her to step back. They kneel beside the man, their hands roaming over him while the ambulance lights flash behind them. The lights continue flashing until they are joined by the authoritative siren of the squad car. Hearing this, she hurries back into the store, back to the peephole in the glass. Things are coming together now, a proper cacophony of wailing sirens and lights to quake the dawn and alert bystanders to the significance of what has occurred on this corner—a breach of the social contract, a life lost.
She watches the paramedics scoop the man into a black bag. One of the police officers stops them as they are zippering. He holds the bag open a few inches and peers inside, the way a woman might look into her purse for lipstick or her wallet. His partner approaches the store. She turns away from the window and checks that the door to the cashier booth is locked.
“So sorry to calling you,” she says when he walks in.
She is ready to tell him about the man outside, that he had been coming to the store for years to buy cigarettes, always before sunrise. She did not know the man's name or why anyone would want to kill him. She prepares translations for her responses to the questions she anticipates, but the officer does not ask.
Instead he says, “These people kill each other all the time,” setting two bags of Doritos and cans of Coke on the counter.
The name tag on his uniform reads Burns. She pauses for a moment, startled. She thinks she remembers him, the same doughy-faced officer who had responded to her first 911 call.
“These people kill each other all the time.”
He had said this then, too. It has been five years, but she feels quite sure that this was the same officer. She remembers how he held her shoulders as he walked her to the door, how she kept her head down and felt the way with her feet. Once outside, she opened her eyes to see the blood on the sidewalk, and vomited.
The day after, they had closed the store to clean the traces of this man from their storefront and the sidewalk. This was the only day in five years that they had ever closed the store, or at least that she could remember. Even when she had given birth, both times her mother had gone with her while her husband worked. All day they scrubbed and repainted the wall. They did their best over the sidewalk. All day she thought about the man.
“What did you say to them?” her husband had asked. "Now I know the police can get to us in eight minutes. When I call they never come.”
Officer Burns holds out two dollars, but she refuses. She sweeps his Cokes and Doritos into a black plastic bag and pushes it across the counter.
“No, please, take it,” she says as Burns raises his hands in protest. “Thank you.”
She hears her mother’s voice, selling chestnuts and squid in Busan. From the American GIs who would buy snacks, she would often refuse payment. “U-S-A!” her mother would say, waving them off if they tried to hand her money.
“Thank you, U-S-A! Thank you!”
Sometimes they would notice her, the vendor’s little daughter, peeking at them from behind a heaping pile of chestnuts, and wave. Her mother’s hand, like talons over her shoulder, would jerk her back as if she were standing too close to a chained dog.
At home, her father would count their earnings as she massaged his swollen legs, the stench of sweat and alcohol seeping from his pores. He would scream at her mother, “You give away chestnuts and squid and what else? You think they want your thank-yous? In Incheon they shot us like dogs when we tried to thank them. My father died eating those words!”
When she grew old enough to help her mother with the cart, the GIs began smiling at her differently, their eyes lingering in a way that made her mother threaten to shave her head. She and her friends called them Hellos. By then she had heard the stories about these men who rotated in and out of their community. As soon as one Hello became familiar enough to distinguish from the others, he would disappear, replaced by another shipload of Hellos, a recurring tide that kept the naval base humming.
Occasionally a fisherman would find a girl, a kijichon, her bloated body found in the river, pieces of clothing and flesh lost to the current and to hungry fish, and the community would exchange glances and murmur, or neunchi-ba, when the Hellos came around, released from their base.
Eight minutes, her husband had told her. Only eight minutes. Now, when she thinks back to the night of the lotto ticket, she can remember the voice of the 911 operator, so flat and unimpressed, as if she had interrupted her in the middle of watching a show, that she herself had swallowed her tears and forced herself to speak calmly in turn. She remembers the smell of her hands as she crouched in hiding, of sweat and coins. The man’s fists hitting the glass repeatedly above her. The gleam of blood on the sidewalk. But those eight minutes, she cannot recall.
To her it seemed no time passed between the operator’s voice and the sirens. She only stood when she heard the man leave—the door still had a bell then. The storefront window was bare except for the metal bars encasing it from outside.
She saw the man put his hands in the air. He was yelling, pulsing his hands above his head as if to wave them back. The blue and red lights of the squad car reflected off the skin of his arms and his white undershirt. She noticed a hole in the cheap fabric where the seam must have split. The same thing happened to her husband’s undershirts; she mended them until the holes became too numerous and the fabric seemed to disintegrate.
“On the ground now!” she heard the officers yelling.
She crawled to the window and realized then that they had their guns drawn and pointed at the man who was now turning away from them slowly with his hands in the air, head bowed and arms reaching high like her children when she would discipline them for bickering. Ten minutes of them kneeling and facing the wall with their arms up. Ten minutes of her pretending not to notice when they surreptitiously rested their hands against the wall.
The officers continued to scream, “Get down, on the ground! Keep your hands up!” The man was on his knees now, hands up with no wall to rest on. She saw that he was starting to bow forward in an attempt to get down lower as the officers repeated their orders for him to get on the ground where he was already kneeling.
And then gunshots. He fell forward onto his face. She tasted blood, her lip split from the pressure of her face against the window frame.
The officers ran forward, their guns still trained on the man who was now facedown, as low as he could possibly be on the ground, and yet they continued to scream at him, “Get down now! Get on the ground! Let me see your hands!” His hands lay still on the asphalt, a crumpled lotto ticket just out of reach.
“Thank you,” Officer Burns says sheepishly as he accepts the bag at last. “And thank you for calling us. It’s better you call us than, you know, taking matters into your own hands.” He makes pistols with his fingers and releases alternating shots into the air like a cowboy. He laughs.
“Thank you, bye-bye,” she says, her face stretched into a smile as he leaves. From the peephole she sees him wave to his partner who is smoking a cigarette. He tosses him a bag of Doritos and walks around to the driver’s side. She observes his gait and his movements, the ease and confidence that she has seen in other white men, as if completely unburdened by the possibility that someone could be watching. The ambulance is gone and the sidewalk as empty as it was when she arrived, save for a dark stain.
The day they closed, her husband had poured bleach over the sidewalk four times on her insistence. She rinsed and scrubbed, but for months she could still see the blood soaked deep into the concrete. It seems to shimmer now just beneath the surface, a bruise changing color.