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A Lament for Denton Han

A Lament for Denton Han

prologue

Su-min Han hunched over a sewing machine in the back of a small garment shop in Itaewon. Tucked out of sight from the customers, she spent her days stitching names and logos onto clothing sold to Americans stationed at Yongsan. While the shop specialized in sports uniforms, their biggest sellers were the bomber jackets and parkas popular with the soldiers. They featured an ornate dragon emblazoned on the back and the customer’s name sewn above the left breast.

The pay was decent, but the work was tedious and Mr. Chung, the owner, was an abrasive boss. The hours were long and Su-min had little time to spend with her son, Sang-yeol; she felt his childhood slipping away every day she spent at work. 

In his mother’s absence, Sang-yeol’s childhood companion had become AFKN—the American radio and television stations broadcast from the army base. He had become enamored with American culture; he was well-versed in the latest tv shows, movies, and music that America had to offer. His fondness for all things American culminated in his desire for an American name.

Thanks to a friend’s referral, Su-min had just gotten a job as a housekeeper on Yongsan. The pay was better and she would have evenings and weekends off. She planned to finish the week and, once her final paycheck was in hand, would then inform Mr. Chung she was quitting. He was temperamental and if she gave her notice too soon, he would withhold her paycheck as penance.

Su-min was working on a pile of soccer jerseys when she heard Mr. Chung beckon her. Hurrying to the sales floor, she saw him holding a child’s jacket and speaking in apologetic tones to an American woman. He turned to Su-min to berate her, in English, for misspelling the child’s name on the jacket. The customer chimed in, pointing to her lips as she spoke:  “B B B… Benton; not D D D… Denton!!! Can you speak English???!!!” Mr. Chung again apologized profusely to the woman.

Su-min bowed in apology as Mr. Chung dramatically threw the jacket at her. While she knew the theatrics were for the customer’s benefit, she took the opportunity to clutch the jacket and walk out of the store. It was worth more than the week’s salary she would receive if she stayed; winter was approaching and her son desperately needed a warm coat. She ignored Mr. Chung’s obscenities (now in Korean) and walked down the street where she boarded a bus that took her home.

Sang-yeol ran to his mother as she walked in the door; it was an unexpected surprise to see her home so early. She pulled out the jacket and handed it to her son. A big grin spread across his face as he pointed to the name sewn on the front of the jacket, first spelling it, then pronouncing “Denton.” He tried it on; it was a little large, but he would grow into it. He gave her a big hug; she had done more than provide him warmth for the winter—she had given him an American name.

 

one

Sean had just moved into quarters on Yongsan Garrison with his parents and was out investigating his new neighborhood, hoping to find some other kids his age. He hadn’t acclimated to the humidity of the Korean summer yet and was about to give up for the day when he heard someone yell “L.A. Dodgers!” He turned to see a boy approaching and realized he was referring to the hat his mother made him wear to protect him from the sun. Excited at the prospect of making a new friend, Sean introduced himself, though admitted he wasn’t actually a Dodgers fan.

“That’s ok, Sean; nobody’s perfect” They both laughed. “I’m Denton Han and I AM a Dodgers fan.” Sean liked him immediately.

Denton told Sean his mother, Su-min, had recently married an MP named Jackson and they lived not too far from Sean’s parents. He loved living on the American base but confided he wasn’t fond of his step father.

The boys quickly became friends and spent the remaining days of summer exploring Yongsan together. Once school started and they discovered they were in the same classroom, the two became inseparable.

One afternoon they were at Denton’s house watching TV. Denton looked over at Sean and said “You know, my mom made me a Dodgers hat once….”

“Oh yeah? Why don’t you wear it?”

Denton disappeared down the hall to his bedroom and re-emerged wearing a powder blue, mesh cap. The front of the hat was embroidered with a very loose interpretation of a cursive capital D.

The boys started laughing uncontrollably when the door flew open and Denton’s step father, a 6-foot-tall stone wall of a man, burst into the living room. His sergeant’s voice drowned out the television: “Keep it down; I have to work tonight!” He slammed the door as Denton slowly removed the hat. Su-min explained that Jackson was very tired and suggested they go play outside.

Denton’s birthday was in December and, in what had become a tradition, his mother was taking him out for his favorite meal—kimchi jjigae—and invited Sean to join. Sean was unfamiliar with Korean food, but saw how happy it made his friend so he gladly accepted.

Exiting the bus in one of Seoul’s bustling shopping districts, the two boys followed Su-min as she threaded her way through rows of merchants and storefronts. As they turned into an alley lined with food vendors, the smell of grilled meat and fried food filled the air. They stepped inside the flaps to one of the covered stalls and sat down in plastic chairs.

Sean looked across the table, admiring Denton’s winter jacket and feeling a little jealous. It looked much warmer than his own and had a cool dragon on the back. He asked where he got it and Denton boasted “My mom made it!” Sean, half-jokingly, suggested that maybe she could make him one, too, but received no response.

The owner brought out three earthenware bowls of soup at a roiling boil, and three small containers of rice, placing one of each in front of them. Sean warmed himself over the steam rising from the food; he looked around the table to see if anyone had started eating. He saw Denton place several spoonfuls of rice into the soup and, after watching Su-min do the same, followed suit (intrigued by this ritual) and carefully took a bite of the scalding mixture. He felt the warmth of the jjigae permeate his entire body and eagerly spooned up more. Su-min watched the boys eat, happy to see Denton still held an appreciation for some of his Korean culture.

Spring soon arrived, bringing the return of warmer weather, but also news that Jackson’s request to extend his tour of duty had been declined. He had already been granted one extension when he married Su-min and the army felt he had spent enough time in Korea. Denton would be moving that summer.

The two boys tried to make the most of their last few months together. But the reality of their impending separation began creeping into their friendship and they often found themselves bickering until the tension culminated into an all out fist fight. Neither boy admitted to losing, nor to being at fault. Both refused to see or speak to each other for their final month together in Korea.

 

two

Dodger Stadium sprawled out before Denton as he walked out of the tunnel into the stands. Even under cloudy skies the panoramic view was impressive. He had dreamed about this moment since he was a boy, yet the euphoria of the moment eluded him. He had always imagined his mother would be here with him, yet found himself alone in Los Angeles.

Su-min was in Chambersburg where the family had moved when Jackson got out of the army. Rural Pennsylvania was not the America Denton had envisioned. Nor was living with his step father who had grown increasingly abusive to both he and his mother. The army’s structure and discipline had provided a framework to channel the man’s anger and meanness, but stripped of that environment, he lashed out at everyone. As Denton grew older, clashes with Jackson escalated. To diffuse the situation, Su-min arranged for Denton to live with her cousin, Sam Han, who owned a convenience store in Los Angeles. 

The night before he left, Su-min presented her son with a pair of white leather Adidas—shoes he had coveted since childhood. She told him he’d be on his feet most of the day helping Sam in the store and would need comfortable footwear. She also gave him an envelope of cash, which she stipulated was for a day at Dodger Stadium; it was enough for his ticket, a cap, and some food. He hugged his mom, unable to hold back his tears.

Denton felt several raindrops fall onto his new hat. He looked down to see rain bounce off his Adidas and thought about the sacrifices his mother had made for him to be here; he missed her and wished she could be part of this new life. He wanted her to leave Jackson and come live with him, but knew she would balk. Regardless, he decided to mention it to her every time they spoke, hoping to wear her down.

The rain steadily increased, turning into a downpour before the game had a chance to begin. Fans began to file out of the stadium but Denton remained in his seat, hat soaked, watching the grounds crew rush to cover the infield with a tarp.

Denton immersed himself in his work, spending 10-12 hours a day in the store. Aside from living expenses, he kept all the money he made in the office safe. Sam was impressed with Denton’s work ethic and thrift, and before long, found himself doing the unthinkable: taking a day off and leaving Denton in charge of the store.

In the spring of 1992, Su-min came to visit Denton in Los Angeles. Stepping off the bus, she embraced her son. She removed the hat from his head and placed it over the curls of her permed hair. “L.A.!” she said posing in his Dodgers cap as the two laughed and hugged again. He felt like their family was whole again.

Su-min enjoyed her time in California. For the first time in years, she could relax and just be herself. She phoned her husband to inform him she was staying an additional week.

Denton awoke in the middle of the night to Jackson’s 300 pound frame forcing its way into his apartment like a battering ram. When he tried to block his step father’s path, Denton was quickly dispatched to the ground. The intruder flung the bedroom door open, ordering Su to get her things—she was coming home.

Getting back on his feet, Denton tried to place himself between Jackson and his mother but found himself flat on his back again. He heard his mother scream as things went dark. When he regained consciousness, the apartment was empty and his head was throbbing.

Denton tried to distract himself with work until he could contact his mom again but, within days, the city erupted in violence. Anger and frustration boiled over into the streets of Los Angeles, consuming everything in their path, including the Han’s convenience store.

In the wake of the riots, Denton shuffled through the debris in his now grey Adidas. He made his way to the office where Sam was inspecting broken file cabinets and sifting through paperwork strewn about the room. Looking up, he somberly informed Denton that the looters had made off with the safe; both of their money was gone. He stood up and located some plastic tarp which he pulled over the desk, effectively pronouncing his business dead.

 

three

Sean sat alone in a small Korean restaurant just outside of Olympia, dipping spoonfuls of rice into a bowl of jjigae. He was feeling particularly melancholy: he had just graduated from college, had no real job, and his roommate had moved out of state for a job. The empty house and lack of direction left him contemplative and lonely.

The jjigae brought back fond memories of his childhood in Korea; it had been years since he had eaten Korean food. He recalled his first jjigae experience with Denton and Su-min in Seoul and wondered what had become of his friend.

He took his time finishing his meal, then got up to pay his bill. As he was leaving, he heard the owner yell back to the kitchen in Korean. He couldn’t understand what she was saying, but distinctly heard “Denton” in her commands. He looked back and saw a man emerge from the kitchen and start to clear the table; he was wearing a faded Dodgers cap.

The owner let Denton go early and the two went back to Sean’s house. They stayed up all night talking; the rekindling of an old friendship was exactly what Sean needed. Denton told him how he lost his money in the riots and didn’t know what he was going to do until a relative of Sam’s invited him to come live in her spare room in exchange for help at her restaurant. Her husband had passed away and she was having a difficult time running the business alone.

Denton had made his way to Washington but, despite working at the restaurant a year, hadn’t made any money. The business wasn’t doing well and the free room was all the owner could afford to pay him. Sean insisted Denton stay in his spare room and look for a better job. 

Denton was hesitant to leave the owner; he knew she couldn’t run the place on her own. But within a month, she informed him she was closing the restaurant; there wasn’t enough business to justify keeping it open any longer. Denton moved into Sean’s house and quickly became a fixture on the couch.

Several weeks passed and Sean was becoming concerned; to his knowledge, Denton had yet to apply for even one job. Every day he came home from work to find Denton watching tv and drinking beer. His grey Adidas—heels flattened from years of slipping the shoes on and off from the rear—and Dodgers cap sat just inside the front door, unused since the day he moved in.

Driving home one evening, Sean knew he had to confront his friend. But when he walked inside, he noticed Denton’s shoes were gone… and so was his hat. For the first time in weeks, Denton had left the house.

Sean was awakened several hours later when the front door opened. Denton walked in, proudly holding a bag of groceries and a case of beer. “I got a job!”

He had been hired as a server in one of the nicer restaurants near the capitol. His first shift was over the lunch hour; he wanted to make sure it worked out before telling Sean. In addition, he had heard from his mother. She was warming to the idea of leaving Jackson if Denton had a place for her to stay, but didn’t want to commit until he was able to support them both. This had been motivation for Denton to find a job as soon as possible.

Sean told Denton that Su-min was welcome to live with them, but Denton insisted on getting his own place; he didn’t want someone else supporting his mother and he didn’t want Jackson knocking down Sean’s door in the middle of the night.

As in Los Angeles, Denton threw himself into his work. Within a year, he was promoted to manager. The increased salary would be more than enough to support both him and his mother. Ecstatic, he contacted her and the two began making plans.

The day she was scheduled to arrive, Sean was staying with friends. Denton couldn’t take possession of the new apartment for another week and Sean wanted to give the mother and son space to reconnect. Denton was stepping out of the shower when he heard someone leaving a message on the machine. His mom’s friend Todd was frantically begging Denton to call as soon as possible.

 

interlude

My daddy named me after General Stonewall Jackson. He said he had the fear of God and of nothing else. He was a fighter and told me that’s what I needed to be to survive in this world. And I suppose it’s a good thing, because I’ve had to fight all my life. I was always big for my age and boys were always picking fights with me to try and prove themselves.

When I hit my teenage years, I found myself at eye level with my daddy who had to remind me he was still the bigger man. He would beat me pretty bad sometimes and I took it… until my 17th birthday when I fought back. The day I whooped my daddy, I was no longer welcome in his house. So I lied about my age and joined the army.

The recruiter made me military police because of my size and sent me to Saigon. I spent my time breaking up bar fights instead of fighting communists, but I got to meet a pretty Vietnamese woman there. We started getting close, but my unit rotated home before we could marry. I could’ve asked for a transfer but I didn’t fight to stay with her. It’s one of the few regrets I got in life.

I met Su many years later when I was stationed in Korea. She came into the MP station for a work permit and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Later that month I saw her down in Itaewon being harassed by a drunk Marine. I was off duty, but intervened and sent the guy running. She and I became friends and started meeting up regularly. I didn’t want another regret in my life, so I proposed and we were married within the year.

Su had a son, though I never considered him my boy. When we lived in Korea, he didn’t give me much trouble, but when we moved to Chambersburg, he was always under foot. He was growing up and there was only room in the house for one man.

Once he moved out, things got cold between Su and me. I think she blamed me for the boy leaving. She got a job up in Shippensburg so I didn’t see her much during the day. She started hanging out with a fellow named Todd. I usually don’t approve of my wife hanging out with any man, but since he was queer, I figured it was safe. So I tolerated him.

I felt Su slipping farther away; we’d go weeks without a word between us. I thought about kicking her out, but I respected the institution of marriage—that’s forever; for better or for worse. So I abided the distance she put between us. Though sometimes I had to show her I still loved her. Like the time she went to visit her son in California: said she was staying for a week, then tried to tell me she was staying longer. That was disrespectful. Her place is with her husband, not her grown son.

Su started spending more time outside the house and I started getting suspicious. When she thought I was asleep, I was listening to her phone calls and soon found out she was plotting to leave me and break the sacred bonds. I didn’t fight for my woman in Vietnam, but I would sure as hell fight for my marriage.

The day she was planning to leave, she said she was going to work. Todd picked her up. I fought that part of me that wanted to just let her go and pulled myself off the couch to follow them. I had to make sure she didn’t have a change of heart. I wanted to believe in her commitment to me—maybe she was going to work after all. As the car passed the Shippensburg exit and continued north toward Harrisburg, my heart broke.

At the airport, I watched Su get a suitcase out of the trunk and walk toward the terminal. I stepped behind her and called her name. She was caught off guard but kept walking. I pulled out my .45 and pointed it toward her; I told her to get into my car, but Todd ran between us.

“This doesn’t concern you,” I clicked off the safety and motioned for him to step aside. I could see the fear in his eyes. I didn’t like him but I wasn’t a murderer. He retreated to his car like the coward I knew him to be.

Su still wouldn’t look at me; she continued walking away. I started to follow and called to her again. When she refused to heed me, I shot once… twice. She collapsed onto the parking lot.

I walked over to her and turned the gun on myself. I fell to the ground where I joined my wife.

I was done fighting.

 

four

A Washington State trooper stood over the body in the pouring rain, a pair of Adidas lay on the pavement several feet away. After interviewing several witnesses, he entered “suicide” into his notes and, unable to find any identifying documents on the body, listed the victim as “John Doe of Asian Descent.” Somewhere in the 67 foot plunge from the Capitol Boulevard bridge to the left hand lane of I5 southbound, Denton Han lost his name.

Another officer on the scene diverted traffic into the center and right lanes of the highway while the trooper covered the corpse with a blue tarp. Rainwater trickled down the folds of the plastic shroud onto the highway, washing blood from the asphalt.

 

epilogue

The last image Sean had of Denton Han was the photograph of a bruised and broken body presented by the coroner’s office for him to identify. He had been able to restore Denton’s name to the anonymous corpse that lay in the morgue, but had spent the last 25 years trying to exorcise the image from his memory.

Sean contemplated the jjigae and rice on the table before him. Every December, on Denton’s birthday, he partook of the rite of jjigae in remembrance of his friend. He ate the meal slowly, every bite deliberate and with purpose—as if it were the holy Eucharist—until the bowl was empty.

He pulled on the Dodgers hat Denton had left in the house—a parting gift. As his arms struggled to find their way into his jacket, he had a vision of his friend as a smiling child in Korea, proudly wearing the dragon jacket his mother had made. He tried to hold onto this version of Denton but, as he stepped outside, the bitter cold air filled his lungs, sapping the memory—and residual warmth of the jjigae—from his body.

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