A Pale Blue Ribbon

By Linda Kang

 

"Go in there and start some trouble."

The two boys look around hesitantly at the rest of the Fu Ching members. Their eyes are wide with fear as they realize that this particular bar is the territory of Korean Power, the rival gang. One of the boys is short and wears round spectacles. He lacks the hardened look that the other gangsters have and the cigarette in his mouth seems totally out of place. He does not have the spiked hair, the tapered pants or the other telltale signs of a gangster. He is dressed in black like the others, but even this cannot conceal his chubby cheeks which betray his fifteen years. The other boy is taller, thinner, and wears a black trenchcoat which makes him look lankier than he really is. Both boys look at the floor to show respect and to hide their discomfort. It is finally the baby-faced boy who speaks up.

"Hyung, I donít know if thatís such a good ideaÖ"

Before he can even finish his thought, a strong blow is dealt to his mouth by the dai-lo (head gangster) who originally issued the command. The dai-lo is short but stocky and has a large white scar on top of his left eyebrow. Knife-scars as well as cigarette burns adorn his arms and hands.

"Donít you ever question my authority. Now go in there and start some trouble."

The boy with the spectacles holds up his arm to wipe his bleeding lip on his sleeve. Without a word, he and the other boy enter through the heavy, metallic door under the bright orange neon lights which blaze "New Seoul."

Itís a rainy day and the sky is considerably dark considering that itís only around two p.m. I fail to use my umbrella despite the fact that it has started to drizzle. I walk around the aisles and aisles of tombstones to search for R-23. My black patent flats make squishy sounds in the grass and pull up more and more mud with each step. Water is leaking into my shoes, making my feet cold and wrinkly. The myriad of flowers adorning the graves blaze brightly against the velvet grey sky, especially the bright yellow ones. They remind me of the lemon yellow crayons I used to color with in elementary schoolÖ

"Hey, youíre not allowed to color. This is supposed to be homework study. Iím telling," I said in my usual bratty seven-year-old voice.

"I can so color," the little boy adamantly replied. He was a chubby little boy and had the typical Asian bowl haircut. It was study period at the afterschool center and his fat fingers were intently coloring away. He was totally oblivious to the fact that he was doing something wrong.

"Oh yea, says who? Youíre supposed to be doing homework. Coloring is not homework."

"Well, I finished my homework."

"Well, so did I."

"Then you can color too." He handed me a sunny yellow crayon and placed his coloring book between us.

Speechless, I took the crayon and started to color in one of the butterflies on the page. This was a lot more fun than doing homework. I never liked spending time at the afterschool center, but my parents had to send me there because both of them worked and came back very late.

"Whatís your name," I asked.

"Joon Duck. Whatís yours?"

"Itís Ji Young. Joon Duck, hmmmÖ I donít really like that. Iím going to call youÖDucky. Yeah thatís it, Ducky."

The rain has started to fall harder, causing my shirt to cling like a second layer of skin. I shiver and walk to the side to avoid a huge puddle. Itís been a long time since Iíve walked in the rain. Ducky and I used to have contests to see who could jump over the largest puddle. One of us would always end up falling in the puddle, splashing the otherÖ

For my ninth birthday, Joon Duck came to the afterschool center with a small package wrapped in red foil. Inside was a bright blue satin ribbon.

"Thanks, Ducky. But what is it?"

"Itís a ribbon so that you can tie your keys around your neck so you wonít lose them."

"Thanks," I said, as I looped the ribbon through my keys and around my neck.

"Wow, Ji Young. I canít believe youíre nine already. But I guess Iíll be nine next year too. Nine is so old."

"Nine isnít old Ducky. We still have a long time before weíre grown-ups. When I grow up I want to be a doctor. What do you want to be?"

"I want to be the richest man in the world so that my mom and dad wonít have to work anymore and can stay home all day. That way I wonít be lonely."

Joon Duck was a latch-key kid, too.

The cemetery is quiet. Its atmosphere is like that of a sanctuary, solemnly reverent. It seems to acknowledge the mourning and the grief of those who visit. I keep hearing the principalís loudspeaker announcement again and again in my head. " One of our students has recently been killed in a gang-related event. Let us please share a moment of silence." But there was no silence. Just quiet. Quiet which was broken by hysterical crying and looks of disbelief. No tears fell from my eyes. I gave him my silenceÖ

It was student orientation day at Walker High School and the auditorium was filled with prospective students, parents, and faculty all gathered to watch the students put on a show. The air was dank, filled with the smell of sweat. As the glee club came to the close of their performance I turned to the rest of the cheerleaders and whispered, "Remember, donít be nervous and donít forget to smile." Soon it was our turn to perform and somehow we managed to go through all the somersaults and mounts without anyone falling. After we exited the stage, I found a seat amidst the rest of the audience and sat down to watch the rest of the show. The gospel choir was up next and in the middle of their performance someone came and tapped my arm. I was confronted by a Preppie-looking Asian boy with round spectacles who looked vaguely familiar.

"I thought that was you, Ji Young, but I wasnít too sure. I couldnít really tell when you were up on stage. Since when were you a cheerleader?"

"Who are you?" I asked, still trying to recognize him.

"Ji Young, you donít know who I am? I couldnít have changed that much in three years."

I stared at him intently. I realized who it was.

"Ducky, is that you? What are you doing here?"

Gone was the short and stubby little boy with the bowl hair-cut. He was replaced by a taller, thinner, stylish young man. The only trace of his former baby fat lay in his rosy cheeks. This was the first time I was Joon Duck since elementary school. We ended up going to different junior high schools because we were in different busing zones.

"Iím here because I took the Walker test and I got in. Iíll be coming here next year. Itís been so long since I saw you!"

Black. The funeral was a conglomerate of bodies clad in black. The women were wailing and beating their breasts, the men sat with stoic expressions. I was one of the men that day Ė unemotional and severe.

It was a Friday afternoon and the bell rang, signaling the end of the school day. My friends and I got off the L train and started the long walk down the transfer tunnel to the IRT trains. The tunnel was dark, musty, and reeked of urine. We passed by a guy with long, wavy, dirty blond hair. He was wearing John Lennon glasses and was playing a weird xylophone. In front of him was a dingy cap half-filled with pennies and other coins. He started blankly in front of him, euphoric. He was probably tripping on acid.

We took the 1 Train down to Christopher Street. As we got off, one of my friends cracked a joke about homosexuals. After all, this was the gay part of the Village. We went up the stairs and walked up the block to Tekk Billiards. The sign wasnít very flashy. It was one of those places that go unnoticed.

Inside there were stairs leading into darkness. We passed by a vending machine and juke box on the way to the counter. The room at the bottom of the stairs was dim and smoky. Everything looked foggy. As I looked around, I saw the usual crowd of Asian faces, broken up by a few whites here and there. There were the guys with cigarettes hanging loose in their mouths, trying to look intimidating. Actually, a lot of them were intimidating. There were the gangsters who played pool to hustle people out of their money. Then there were the girls in their chic black outfits. That was the way everything had to beóblack and expensive.

I walked to the far corner of the room to watch a match. The tables were pretty good. They were kept clean and the green velvet wasnít very worn yet. This was the table that the Fu Ching guys usually played at. As the next person up turned around to chalk his hands and cue his stick, I recognized that it was Joon Duck.

"Ducky, what are you doing here? I havenít seen you in school for a while. Have you been sick?" I asked.

Joon Duck seemed a little uncomfortable and avoided my gaze.

"Uh, no. Iíve been fine. Really. Iíve just been uh, a little busy lately."

"Oh," I said and walked away. Something was obviously wrong and I didnít like the way Joon Duck was brushing me off. As I left the table, I noticed him lighting up a cigarette. When did he start smoking, I wondered, and what was he doing at F.C.ís table? But these thoughts quickly faded as I was challenged to a game by one of my friends.

Afterwards, everyone gathered around his coffin. But the coffin had to be kept closed because the mortician couldnít reconstruct the head. A fifteen year old boy in N.Y.C. was forced to go into a bar that he did not want to go into, only to be immediately shot in the mouth. What a waste of potential, people said. He was a student at one of the best high schools in the nation, he could have made something of himself, yet he chose to join a gang. They said that by doing this, he ultimately chose to dieÖ

"Hey isnít that Joon Duck over there?"

I looked across the park to where Su Hee was pointing. Joon Duck was sitting on one of the green park benches, smoking with a couple of other guys. They were watching the ultimate team toss around a frisbee.

"Yeah, I think it is," I replied.

"Doesnít he ever go to class? He just sits out here smoking almost every period."

"Maye he just didnít feel like going to class today," I replied defensively.

"Maybe he doesnít feel like going to school, period. What a waste of life."

I felt almost offended at what she had said. I mean, sure, obviously Joon Duck and I took our academics to different degrees of seriousness, but socially we were really alike. We went to the same pool halls, the same clubs and hung out with the same types of people. Joon Duck was a very smart, talented boy with a great heart, but Su Hee failed to take this into account. She was judging solely based on his social habits. It was unfair of her to be so condescending. Just because he smoked or hung out a little excessively did not make him a loser. I was basically the same as he was.

My legs are getting tired from walking. The rain is still falling hard and it seems like it will continue falling forever. Rain means God is crying, Ducky used to say when we were little. And snow means heís having a pillow fight with the angelsÖ

It was ten-fifteen a.m. and I was late for homeroom. I hurriedly ran up the last flight of stairs to the fifth floor and pushed my way through the lingering mass of bodies in the hall. I rushed into homeroom and plunked myself down in my seat. Still breathing heavily, I turned around and greeted my friend Young Jin with a hearty hello.

"Hey, Young Jin. Whatís up?"

"Hi," he mumbled and stared back on his desk.

"Young Jin, whatís bothering you? Is there anything that I can do?"

"Ji Young, do you remember Joon Duck?"
"Of course I remember him. We all went to elementary school, remember? I just saw him a few weeks ago at Tekk."

"Ji Young, Joon Duckís dead."

I finally find the tombstone I am searching for. It is round and marble and has the inscription, "Joon Duck Kim, Beloved Son, 3/15/74-4/26/89." My face is very wet and I can not tell whether itís from the rain or my own tears. My body is numb, not from the cold but from inside.

I place a ribbon with a key on top of his grave. It is wrinkled and pale blue with dirt in the places that touched my neck the most.


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