Center of the Universe (5)
The mysterious, miraculous, disastrous path to Table 10 begins just south of the Soviet border, nine-thousand clicks from Fairfax, California.
Drafted into the final month of the Korean War and dispatched by the People’s Army to defend Pyongyang, Kang and his friend took a good look and — like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, a movie not yet made — pretended to piss in a field and ran for home, a tiny village hundreds of miles away that had long since fallen to the Communists and was ruled by fierce young Koreans, True Believers indoctrinated just north of the border and sent back to maintain the Marxist-Leninist utopia in its most pure — that is, most inhuman — form.
Kang and his friend ran for the only home the boys had known — even though they knew. Having lived under a brutal Japanese occupation in World War II and then been “liberated” by Communists, they knew. Still, they ran, for days, on instinct, without maps or the guns the People’s Army could no longer issue, pursued as foe by every army in the fight: as deserters by the North and its allies, China and Russia, and by the South and its allies — the US, UK, Canada, Australia — as enemy combatants. They hid in fields and ditches and forests and one time, when one of the seven or eight hostile armies was marching by, they prayed, trembling, in the closet of a house they thought was empty. But the resident did not betray them and the soldiers decided not to search.
Maybe that was the miracle.
They ran on roads — because what else are you going to do, if you ever want to make it home? And on one of those roads they ran out of luck. Although that would not be the way Reverend Kang would describe it. He would describe it as God’s plan. However, in the context of the dire hospitalization of another friend and Sorella regular, I recently heard him wonder aloud, in his near-silent way, what in the heck that plan could be.
But that’s always the mystery. Then came the disaster.
How I know about the disaster is because I read it in Reverend Kang’s book. It wasn’t a book at the time. It was a manuscript. And after his daughters told their father I was a writer, he asked if I would read it. Actually, I’m not sure he asked. He just showed up at Sorella’s, the restaurant his daughters own, carrying the manuscript, and sat at our table. Kang is quiet, when he’s not dead quiet, and always makes me think about scheduling a hearing exam. But I got the message. I asked if this was the memoir his daughters said he’d been writing for as long as they could remember and did he want me — here I injected all sorts of humble disclaimers to mask my arrogant apprehension — to read it. Without a word, he pushed the inch-and-a-half stack of immaculately typed pages across the table.
The sound of silence, swaying.
By now we’d become quite fond of slipping down the hill to Sorella’s on Friday or Saturday, cozy with the charming sisters who ran it, and habituated to the soul-coddling cucina — for me, the lasagna that was the only thing I bothered to order anymore; for Roni, the eggplant parmagiana. The wine wasn’t bad either — we’d settled into a tart, medium-bodied Nero D’Avola, the red of Sicily. And no one ever told me my loud mouth ruined their dinner, like they did, in so many words — one time in those exact words — in the city. After a few years of religious attendance, Sorella’s was definitely our place. And in a more profound way than previous places. It was our other hearth — if not, once the kids had decamped, our main hearth — a seamless extension of home and, with no blood on the Coast, closest we had to family.
I knew we’d gone too far — or past the point-of-no-return — on Valentine’s Day.
There is a custom at Sorella’s that, after you’ve been coming awhile, Soy, the front-of-house sister, will start to matchmake. The first time for us was when she asked if we’d like to sit with her parents, whose English is less than perfect and, as noted, often less than audible and who were almost old enough to be our parents.
But how’re you going to say no?
And if it was weird and awkward, it was also weird and awkward. And, sure, a little bit sweet. And a little bit interesting — asking Kang about Korea. And it felt like a nice thing. Above all, it signaled we were now part of the family.
The second time, speaking of family, Soy asked if we’d mind sitting with her husband. Which was less awkward — although John does have a few strong opinions the average Fairfax hippie might not agree with. But he’s our age. And a drummer. At least you could talk music.
But the third time we had our old friend Sandy, and Soy asked if we minded if she put Gary with us, which seemed the undiluted essence of utterly random. Gary’s a computer security guy, ten years younger, who lives on the other side of town with a 21-year-old white parrot. But when we introduced ourselves, Gary said to Sandy: You’re not Sandy Pearlman of the Blue Öyster Cult?!? And a friendship was hatched. And Gary whipped out his Android and showed us Doobie via webcam.
Some time after came George, the irrepressible merchant marine, and Flor, the curly-headed Filipina (I think) who shares our love for Dave and Wendy, and the round-the-corner neighbor from Russia, because, OK, our son lived there for seven years. And it’s how we first met Joan, Dave’s chicky-babe, and how — when Giovanni the Friday-night accordionist was out for knee surgery and Gail Muldrow stepped in — we met the wife of Gail’s piano player, who waited 20 years for her gentle, bespectacled husband to get out of San Quentin.
And so on, in a mandala-shaped seating chart parsed only by Soy.
And, today, when we’re not sitting with Gary or John or George or Flor or the Russian or John’s buoyantly blind mother or one or another member of Bernal Beat, the Latin band where John’s the sole guero — plus, more often than not, Sandy — we’re sitting with the parents. But mostly we’re sitting with Gary as well as the parents (+ Sandy), because Gary — single, like George, but less peripatetic — eats at Sorella’s five or six nights a week. And face it, when you’re sitting with Gary, you can pretty much count on sitting with the dentist, who comes in three nights, even when she’s living (temporarily) in Sonoma, 40 minutes away, and may or may not be sweet on someone. By the end of the night, the eight places at the family table, under the stone of Augustus, have frequently expanded to a dozen or more.
I learned not to fight it — except the time Soy tried to berth the bros from the brewpub, and then only by means of a facial twitch that might have looked to a less discerning maitresse-d’ like a tic. I’ve finally come to understand — with gratitude and humility and the kind of wonder for which these thousands of words still feels inadequate — there’s no choice. If we want to be alone, we better go elsewhere. Even on Valentine’s Day.
I know it was before Gary, because Gary wasn’t there. And it was certainly before I understood. We were sitting at a two-top in the front room, over a candle and Nero, when Kang rolled in, solo, and pulled up a seat. He didn’t say anything — at his imperceptible volume, the same as him saying a lot. And I decided then and there I was perfectly, ignorantly, arrogantly entitled to ignore him. Once and for all, I had to get control of this thing with the strange dinner partners — on Valentine’s Day! — and teach the good, kind, intrusive reverend a lesson.
And, once again, it was Kang who taught me. By being unconcerned if we spoke or not. By simply enjoying our company, basking in our all-too-human glow. Enjoying life. Enjoying the very idea of life and company and love and the devotions of St. Valentine. By demonstrating definitively that, just when I thought I’d outgrown all that (at 50-something), just when I thought I was no longer the loudmouth who ruined dinners with a firehose of superfluous profanity, gleefully perverse opinions and brimming-with-ego smugness, I was still, in the words of a hated old math teacher, “a consummate asshole.”
The sound of silence, deafening.
So Valentine’s may have been the turning point, the moment when it became possible for us to say nothing together, to achieve the kind of Zen ego-loss not normally associated with Reverend Kang’s fervent Presbyterianism. In other words, to be family, in the best sense of that fraught word.
But in light of all that light, the arrival of Kang’s non-pro memoir was more of an occasion for distress than an ordinary typescript-attack might have been.
Sure, right off the bat, I knew it was no good. I was a seasoned pro. I’d written a book about Kiss. What I did not know, what it took me a year of skulking about town — guilty, afraid, small, turning away when I drove past the restaurant or when, on the not-rare-enough occasion, I saw Kang on the street, even sneaking off to lesser restaurants, in lesser towns — what I was still too fucking stupid to fathom was how deeply good it was.