206 by Matthew Hooton
by Matthew Hooton
The Kid sits on his bike watching the Stuntman's ghost smoke.
Come on, Kid. Jump's not gonna get any smaller.
Kid lets go of the handlebars, scratches his nose. "It's not right. The board'll flip."
The ghost shakes his head, sighs, exhales another cloud.
They're perched at the top of a pile of dirt and rock in an abandoned lot a few blocks from home, a rectangle of plywood at the bottom propped into a ramp for the jump.
"The angle's wrong."
Broken fossils of piping and wire poke from the earth around the ramp.
Look, says the ghost, you've got a hill and a board. Back in my day that'd've been more than enough.
"Yeah, how'd that work out?"
Don't get smart. You gonna do this, or should we quit? Hell. I'm getting cold anyways.
The Kid doesn't laugh at the tired joke, knows the Stuntman's always cold, knows too that he broke damn near every bone in his body back in the day. Hundreds of breaks and fractures.
"I mean, how many bones are even in the human body?"
What? Hell, kid. This is gettin old. Helmet.
The Kid pulls the white helmet off a handlebar and fastens the strap under his chin, knocks on the moulded plastic shell twice with his knuckles and pushes off, the BMX quick down the steep drop, tires slipping on loose dirt and then he's on the ramp and the board buckles and flips forward, sends him heels over head like a rodeo man onto his back. He can't breathe and the sky goes from grey to fuzzy black.
He opens his eyes to Mrs. Choi standing over him, poking his leg with a broom.
"Ok. Good. Thought maybe you were dead. Jugeunjul." She pokes him again for good measure and he flinches. "Thought maybe I'd have to tell your mother her one son died because he's so stupid I can't even believe my eyes. Even though sometimes my eyes see wrong. Still. So babo."
The Kid sits up and groans. His back and ribs ache, but nothing's sharp. Mrs. Choi stands shaking her head. She's wearing her bright blue windbreaker and jogging pants tucked into gumboots. Has he ever seen her in a different outfit? Maybe not. Her brown hair is outracing its dye from the roots.
"Go slow, stupid. Sit for a minute. Maybe two. Meantime, you gonna introduce your friend?" The woman nods at the Stuntman's ghost sitting next to him in the dirt, the spectre's white jumpsuit soiled from the fall.
"You can see him?" A first. Maybe he's hit his head. Hearing things.
"Oh what? You think only stupid boys see dead people?"
"Uh. I'm not... My mom can't see him, so I just—"
"Ok, ok. Enough sitting now. Come on." Mrs. Choi beckons for him to follow her off the lot towards her bungalow.
He wheels his creaking bike across the street, pauses at the white flamingos guarding the manicured lawn out front. Mrs. Choi catches him staring at the plastic birds.
"Special discount cause of the colour. No problem, I think. White's more beautiful anyhow. Not tacky like pink. Let's go. Bballiwa."
"Maybe I should head home, my mom's—"
"Eomeona! You have a big problem maybe. First, I'll help. Then you can go home." She leads him around the house to the back patio, where she sits in an aluminum lawn chair and yanks off her gumboots. "You too."
The Kid leans his bike against the all-weather siding and toe-to-heels off his Chucks, ignores Mrs. Choi's clucking. The Stuntman is hanging back, oddly vague and transparent beneath clouds threatening rain.
"You coming?" asks the Kid, but the ghost doesn't respond, lingers at the edge of the property.
"Sorry. No yongson allowed," says Mrs. Choi, pointing to the twist of pine boughs and a small cotton bag hanging above the patio's sliding glass doors. "Small magic. Maybe only Koreans know about it."
The Kid follows her inside and sits at her kitchen table. Only two chairs. Nothing on the white walls. Everything clean and bright. The woman sets a plastic cup in front of him, fills it to the brim with pale green liquid from a clear container.
"Nok cha. Cold. It's good for clearing the head. Drink."
He tries it and scowls at the bitterness.
"Yeah, yeah. No sugar like Dr. Pepper. Some doctor. Makes your teeth rot. Drink!"
The kid downs the glass and Mrs. Choi smiles for the first time. She fetches a paper fan and stands next to him holding it over his head, mumbles a few words he doesn't catch, then moves the open fan in circles around his ears and in front of his face.
"A kut. To cut the ghosts pulling you to sickness. Now breathe everything out."
He exhales and the woman nods and sits in the other chair, folds the fan and balances it on the plastic tea container between them.
"Maybe you're ok. Nothing serious. But you've still got a big problem."
"I don't feel—"
"Yeah, ok. I know. You're a little slow, hey? Not a body problem. Yongson. A ghost problem."
"He's not scary or anything. I mean, he's kinda boring sometimes, but—"
"Eomeona! No. Not just a problem for you. You think a ghost wants to just hang around some stupid kid for no reason? He's stuck for real."
"Mm. You know this man's story?"
"Yeah. Totally. Everybody does. He was only, like, the greatest stuntman of all time. He once jumped twelve buses on a Harley. I mean, he wiped out a lot too, but still."
"Yeah, like crashed. Like wicked bad into the hospital and stuff. He doesn't talk about it, but I read he broke hundreds of bones jumping. Crazy, right?"
"Mmm. Broken bones aren't good. They make the body restless after death. And so many. Maybe he needs a special kut. Some special help."
"Yeah, you know, help getting to the Lotus Blossom Paradise."
"I... I'm not sure he'd be super into that."
"Ok, ok. Heaven for white people. A big happy city with trucks and loud yellow-haired girls. Dr. Pepper fountains. Ok?"
"Don't guess. Make sure. He's lonely for real. We either help him, or maybe he'll never leave. Just stay here sad and one day angry. How many broken bones?"
"Like, two-hundred and six, I think."
She sucks air through her teeth, shakes her head. "He's gonna need a big ceremony for real then."
"How do you know about this stuff? Ghosts and everything?"
"Maybe all Koreans know about it."
"Yeah, everyone thinks I'm from Chunguk, right? China?"
The Kid nods. "How come you live alone? Is your family in Korea?"
Mrs. Choi's expression doesn't change, but she hesitates. "We had a big war a long time ago. 1950. Maybe you know about it from school?"
"Yeah. My friend Davy's grandpa fought there. Sometimes he tells us stories. Like, about Commies and machine guns. He gets really angry though and Davy's mom makes us go outside. Is that how come you live alone? The war?"
"It's why I know about ghosts. Too many to count in Korea. Can't spit in my hometown without hitting a grave."
Silence for a breath. "You really think he's lonely?"
"But we can help him?"
"Mm. But we need the right song and fan, and some dancing. Maybe bells. And a big action from you."
"On your bike maybe. A jump. A big one. You have to show this ghost how to fly to white people heaven."
"Cool. Yeah. Except you saw what happened last time."
"At least I tried. A for effort, right?"
"Eh for? What?" She stands up and sighs. "No. You find a place for the jump. Very high. I'll prepare a kut. Deal?"
The Kid rides three blocks home and finds the Stuntman waiting for him outside. The ghost flicks a smoke onto the lawn.
Hell was that all about? One weird lady, if you ask me.
"She says she's from Korea."
The Stuntman looks off into the distance, as if searching the horizon for aircraft.
"So, um, are you, like, lonely or whatever?"
Another cigarette. What am I, some kinda Nancy? Lonely. That's rich.
"Yeah. Cool. That's what I thought, but—"
I mean, ok, you know, I'm not exactly like you, right? I mean. You know. And it's cold as hell all the time.
So I'm just saying, Kid. There's that.
"Hon?" The Kid's mom leans out the kitchen window. "Is that Davy you're talking to? I haven't even thought about food."
After dinner the Kid rides over to Davy's two streets down and his friend lets him in.
"Wanna play Atari?" Even Davy's voice is skinny, and he never seems to notice the Stuntman. Not like the Kid can just ask.
"Sure. But I was kinda hoping to talk to your grandpa too."
A bird-boned shrug. "I guess. But only if you beat me at Pong. I've been practicing."
The Stuntman snorts and says he'll wait outside. Colder in here anyways.
In the basement rec-room the Kid destroys his friend without even trying, then gives him a few points to make it respectable. It's why no one else hangs out with Davy—he's just too frail, and it seems to bleed into everything he does.
"Thought I was on the comeback track there for a minute," says Davy. "Next time you're mine."
They laugh and Davy flicks his pointed chin towards the stairs, up to the living room, where his grandpa sits staring out the bay windows.
"Just don't get him too worked up, ok?"
"Getting dark," says the old man to their reflections in the glass.
The Kid opts not to stand on ceremony, launches into questions about Korea and the war, and Davy's grandpa doesn't disappoint, tells them about marines bayonetted to death in sleeping bags with frozen zippers, MacArthur's amphibious landing at Incheon, the time he watched a white crane descend into a mine field.
"Poof! Feathers everywhere. Heh." He coughs. "Hear that boys? I brought that home with me. Frozen lungs. Cold as Siberia in winter. Stuffed comic book pages into our jackets to keep warm."
The Kid tells the old man about Mrs. Choi, says she came here because of the war.
"Yep. Lots did. Suffered horribly, the Koreans. You can't imagine. Whole damn country firebombed to rubble. Napalm. Chemicals in the water."
"But you got rid of the bad guys, right?" Davy sounds like he's asking for another serving of ice cream, and the Kid grinds his teeth.
The old man goes quiet. Bluster gone AWOL. "Bad guys," he mumbles to their reflections. "Yep. Lots of those."
The Kid asks another question, but Davy's grandpa's done for the night and his friend drags him outside. "Mom'll kill me if we get him all stirred up. She says his heart can't take it."
"Yeah. Ok. Cool. See you Monday at school?"
Davy waves from the front porch as the Kid races the Stuntman home beneath moth-speckled streetlights, his bike's shadow tiny on the sodium-yellow asphalt.
Before they go in for the night, the Kid corners the ghost in the garage between his bike and his mom's green Pacer. "When were you born?"
1932, little man. Why?
"So in 1950 you were ..."
Eighteen and strong as a Spartan.
"Right. But you never went to ... like, Korea, or whatever?"
Long time ago Kid. Whatcha diggin for? Ain't you fast approaching bedtime?
Sunday afternoon in the community library, hefting books the size of bike tires from the history section and paging them like he can taste the words. The Stuntman makes faces at him through the window, chain-smokes, hunches his shoulders against a cold the Kid can't feel.
The library's nearly empty, and one of the staff offers help, so the Kid tells her what he's looking for, and she nods, pulls a lock of blond hair over her cheek and chews it. "Hang on a sec," she says, disappearing into the stacks and returning with another tome. She skims the table of contents and finds it in one, leaves the Kid alone with the open page.
Something terrible under a railroad bridge near a village called Nogeun-ri. The Stuntman and the 7th Calvary. The ink on the page blurs.
The Kid leaves the library and rides partway home before stopping to confront the ghost.
Aw hell. Nasty business that. Nasty. Long over. Best just leave it lie.
"What did you do? Did you hurt those people?"
You know, the past is called that for a reason. Come on, Kid. I was just drivin trucks. Think I wanted to be there?
The Kid pedals hard, skips past his own house and dumps his bike next to the rows of white flamingos, knocks on the glass.
Mrs. Choi shuffles across the kitchen and opens the door, clucks her tongue. "You're all sweaty. Pale too—even more than usual. What's the matter? See a ghost?" She laughs at her own joke, but pauses when she clocks the look on the Kid's face. "Ah. Problem?"
"Uh. No. Just um—"
"Find a place for the jump?"
"Sure. Well, maybe. I was thinking the sandpit could work, right? It's got levels dug out. Down the edge for speed. Huge airtime."
"You can do it without crashing?"
The Kid shrugs.
"You know," she squints at the Stuntman lurking at the edge of the property. "I sometimes feel like I know him. He's famous, right?"
"A big TV star?"
"A couple, but, the thing is—"
"I used to dream about Hollywood. What? You think I was always this old? I was beautiful once. Teeth like abalone."
"He was in Korea."
"Hair like miyeok. Sea plant."
"You can eat it."
"Hair like seaweed."
"He was at Nogeun-ri."
The old woman cocks her head and blinks, as if pausing to check that she's heard correctly, then slides shut the door and shuffles away.
Shouldn't'a opened your trap to begin with, says the Stuntman on the way home.
The Kid pushes his bike, kicks rocks along the gutter. "How bad was it?"
The Stuntman drops a smoke and lights another. You think you wanna know but you don't.
I'm telling you. Leave it be.
"You're scared, aren't you?"
Like hell, Kid.
"Scared that if I figure out what really happened I'll just pretend you don't exist—"
We gunned em down. Refugees. Women. Kids. All of em. Couldn't tell who was friendly and who was a Commie anymore, and the guy on the Browning panicked and opened up on the crowd. Once it started. ... All those bodies. I still count em. Happy now?
The Kid spends the week at school thinking on this, sleeping less than he should, ignoring homework, Davy, the ghost. His mom says the bags under his eyes make him look like a zombie and wonders aloud if he should see a doctor. He shrugs off her worry, says he's just tired, that it's no big deal.
Mrs. Choi was right about his ghost. Little things at first: Eddie Belfour's rookie card out of its case and bent on his bedroom floor, lights snapping on in the middle of the night, flat bike tires. But then worms in his lunch apples, a snapped brake cable on his BMX, broken glass on the bathroom floor.
Friday afternoon at lunch he asks his teacher if he can use the projector to rewatch the Stuntman's jumps, and Mr. James sighs, makes a point of saying again, before digging up the reel for him.
Alone in the dim classroom, blinds down, projector flicking through footage of the jump at Tokyo Stadium. The Stuntman on his Triumph, down the ramp slowly to the end, braking on the lip to look out over the baseball diamond and 35,000 fans. Striped white jumpsuit, white helmet. No cape. The Kid's hands sweat as the bike rips down the ramp a second time, airborne for a heartbeat, graceful even, before bouncing off the safety ramp on the landing, the man flipping over the bike and sliding on his head, somersaulting and tumbling as the camera zooms-in on the riderless bike, still upright, the front tire wobbling side to side in slow motion.
Broke his pelvis, a collar bone, his hip, a wrist, and both ankles that time. Left him in a coma for four days. So the ghost says.
A messy cut in the film, yellow and white light on the blank screen, lines flicking and wiggling like microbes beneath a scope. And then footage of the jump at the Tacoma Dome in Washington State, that custom-made Harley, steel, aluminum, and fiberglass—under three hundred pounds. Thirteen buses in a line, the Stuntman whipping around the stadium popping wheelies, 25,000 fans on their feet screaming. Another insane jump, the bike clearing the buses before the daredevil loses control on the landing again. A nauseous tumble and slide as the bike flips and comes apart, leaves the man on the pavement, a medic kneeling over him, that white jumpsuit prone. And then the man asking to be lifted up, standing, taking a microphone, his voice loud but halting, echoing throughout the stadium.
Well. This is it. Reckon I'm done.
The camera pans the audience, women holding hands to mouths, everyone unsure whether to clap or weep.
Thank you. Let me walk out. Ok. Let me walk.
The Kid sits in the dark, the film tail flapping, white light on the pull-down screen over the chalkboard. He flicks off the projector and lets up the screen, lifts the window blinds, the high grey light of noon filling the room.
Outside on the playground, the ghost sits on an empty swing watching kids running and laughing, surfing teeter-totters. A girl and a boy peg-leg past him, counting hopscotch. Another three build tiny tracks for cars in the sandbox, motor-mouthing engines and screeching tires.
The Kid makes up his mind for good when his mom blames him for breaking a piece of his grandma's China—a gravy boat, of all things—that they find crushed nearly to dust on the kitchen floor.
He calls Davy and tells him to meet him at the sand pit. "Doesn't matter why I'm doin it. I just need you there in case something goes wrong." He hangs up on his friend's chirping and pedals up the old Haul road to the site. The Stuntman follows at a distance, the figure's face impossible to make out. Ghost hasn't said a word in days.
The Kid wheels his bike to the edge of the pit, finds the embankment he sussed earlier. He and Davy came here with Davy's dad once to collect sand for a box in his friend's backyard. Years ago. When they were little and wanted to set up plastic army figures. The bottom of the pit is carved-up by machinery, but left empty on weekends, and from above it looks like a BMX track. The incline he's chosen drops maybe twenty-five feet like a ramp to another drop five or six feet off the bottom of the pit, the sand packed tight by rain and wind. The Kid tries to focus on the line he'll ride down. Sand'll be softer to land on than old boards and pipes at least. But still. He's pretty high. And maybe it's stupid anyhow without Mrs. Choi. Not much of a ritual if it's just him on a bike.
"Eomeona! You're babo for real."
The Kid jumps halfway out of his skin, catches himself before he slips down the track.
"How were you gonna make this work alone?" Mrs. Choi shakes her head. "I got everything for the kut. But we need to hurry, ok?" The old woman clutches her fan in one hand and a string of copper bells in the other. She's wrapped in a thick yellow dress of some kind he's never seen before, no windbreaker, but her gumboots still poke out from beneath. She catches him looking. "Oh what? I should get sandy feet? Never get the house clean."
"I thought you were, like, mad or whatever. Or upset."
"Mm. For real. But then your mother came by the house when I was outside sweeping, asked if I'd seen you. Said you were planning to break your neck with some big stunt."
Davy must have called back—little chicken shit.
"So I thought, ok. The stupid boy's ready. And a deal's a deal. And ok, so, maybe this ceremony's not just for the ghost, you know?"
A squeal of tires on the Haul Road as the green Pacer swerves around a corner and parks at the edge of the pit below them. The Kid's mom gets out and spots him, stops cold at the sight of Mrs. Choi, then starts shouting. Davy slinks out of the passenger side and waves.
The Kid's frozen for a sec before he remembers the Stuntman waving to the crowd in Tacoma. And there's his ghost now, leaning against his mom's car smoking, shaking his head, maybe laughing, though it's hard to tell from so high up. Mrs. Choi starts ringing her bells and chanting in Korean, eyes closed, swaying, slicing the air around them with her fan. And all at once the sand pit is filled with ghosts—men, women and children, hundreds maybe, he thinks, and then realises he knows the exact number.
The Kid waves back at Davy, raps knuckles on his helmet for luck, only vaguely aware that his mother's voice has risen in pitch. He leans back on the bike and pops a wheelie, pushes off and lets gravity do its thing, faster and faster down the track and airborne off the mound, his stomach up, a second of weightlessness, of height he didn't expect, and then down, tires first, so hard he bites his tongue. But he holds on, lands it, the bike racing across sand, pulse loud in his ears. Hard on the bike's back-pedal brake, fish-tailing, spraying dirt and sand and stopping a few yards from his mother and Davy, who stand open-mouthed, staring.
The Kid grins and spits blood.
Davy jumps up and down shouting, though his mom hasn't moved yet. He looks to the Stuntman, finds the ghost grinning back at him, the man's features smooth and young. The spectre nods to the Kid, straps on a helmet, raps it twice.
The Kid looks back at Mrs. Choi, still dancing at the edge of the drop, then back at the sandpit. No crowd of ghosts now. No Stuntman.
"For the love of Saint Peter, young man." His mother's voice in his ear. "Our neighbours are right. You are stupid." But she wraps her arms around him and holds him close, her sweater soft, smelling of rosewater and Noxema.
Above them, the old woman's voice wavers over the bells, a rhythmic chant that fills their ears, the sandpit, the whole damn world.