April 1992: A Recollection

A Short Story

By Daniel Noh

From up on the roof of First Discount Swap-Meet, Moses could see Los Angeles sprawling out before him, rows of tenement homes and strip malls sitting on sidewalks punctuated by Ficus trees that tear up concrete and asphalt with their enormous roots. In the distance the small cluster of skyscrapers that Los Angeles calls its Downtown.

Today the streets were empty and the sky filled not with the gray-brown haze of traffic but with the black of fires. Thick pillars of smoke and flames that to Moses seemed to be falling down upon the city. 

The city of angels had set itself ablaze. 

It was his turn to stand watch over the swap meet. Moses made his living here, as journeyman goldsmith at Park’s Gold, a small jewelry store located in the heart of a massive maze of Korean vendors loudly swearing and selling things in a broken English to residents of the neighborhood who swore back at them in unbroken English.

When the looting and rioting began, they decided that they would take the protection of the place into their own hands. Together, twenty in all, drove together from their apartments in Koreatown and their homes in the San Gabriel Valley in the early hours of the morning to this small warehouse-turned-market in the heart of Compton for the sake of their American dreams. They left their cars in front of the entrances, locked the doors behind them, and barricaded themselves up on the roof. 

Today was day three of the riots. 

***

All throughout his watch, Moses played back the morning he left home. 4AM. Him, standing at the door with a gun, in front of his wife, who held their son in her arms. She, blocking the door, the keys to his car in her bathrobe pockets, stolen from the shoe cabinet while he’d been distracted getting the gun.

“What’s so important about a building?” Youngmi had said, eyes defiant. 

“It’s how we live and eat.”

“There are other ways of surviving.”

“Not for the others. They have families too.” 

“No. We have all the time in the world. Look at me, look at Joshua. You promised me, no more running, no more violence, no more guns. Don’t go. Please. Honey. Yeobeo. Just stay here with me.”

And then him kissing his son goodbye. Making a promise to come back. Then stealing the keys from her and walking out the front door. 

***

Lim Hodong—from the shoe store—joined him on the roof. He was the same age as Moses, but unlike Moses he had immigrated to America only a few years ago. He somehow looked older, more chiseled. Maybe, Moses thought, it was because he had completed his military service, something Moses never did because his father had uprooted them from Korea when Moses was still a small boy. 

“I brought ramen. Everyone else is awake now. They will be up here soon.” 

Moses pulled up one of the folding chairs and they sat together, eating ramen as they kept an eye out over the street. 

“Do you think they will finally try today?” Hodong asked.

“No,” Moses said. “They like us in this neighborhood. And they know Marcus.” 

“They like us enough to call us the n-word instead of chink or gook,” Hodong said through a mouthful of noodles. “You grew up here, you would know.”

Moses shrugged. He didn’t like to play up his American-ness in front of the others.
Kim Sangmin appeared next to them, two hunting rifles in hand. “Is today the day they start shooting?”

Hodong took the rifle. “Good morning sunbaenim. Maybe. I’m starting to get bored.”

“Maybe we’ll end up on the news like the crazy fuckers who started shooting at random people in Koreatown,” Kim Sangmin said. He and Hodong laughed. 

“My wife would kill me if she saw that,” Moses muttered. 

“Stop worrying so much Moses. It’s unbecoming of you. What will your son say when he learns of this later. Fathers need to do right by their children,” Kim Sangmin said. 

“By shooting black people?” 

“By providing for him, and protecting how you do that.”

Moses gulped down the last of the ramen soup and chucked the cup over the side of the building. “Well let’s make sure I get to go home to him when this all ends.”

***

All the men had been joking about which side of the building to pee over when a bullet cracked over their heads. They had been watching a crowd below them looting a strip mall across the street when it happened. Quickly, with trained efficiency, they lifted their rifles down towards the crowd. 

“Hey! Go away!” someone shouted. 

Moses peeked over the edge, hands griped tight around the shotgun. The shells inside the magazine rattled from the shaking of his hands. A small crowd, probably a few dozen. Mostly unarmed. A few with baseball bats. But some of them had guns and now they were trading shots. The crowd scattered.

Gunfire popped all around him. Moses ducked back down. He propped himself up against the rampart, grinding his teeth as more concrete showered down on him. He hugged the shotgun tight. He closed his eyes. He wanted to see his son, his wife.

“Hey, Moses, get your shit together!” Hodong yelled as he shot his hunting rifle into the crowd below. Moses looked up at him. Blood ran down Hodong’s cheeks where the concrete shrapnel had grazed him. 

Somehow, Moses found himself looking down over the crowd below again.

A young boy, no older than eighteen, looked up from the streets, a pistol in his hand. 

Moses closed his eyes, and squeezed the trigger.