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A Gesture Life

by Chang-rae Lee

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Chang-rae Lee

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Book Summary

Franklin Hata, a Japanese man of Korean birth living in suburban New York, seems on the surface to be living a quiet and harmonious life, but he remains tormented by his wartime love for a Korean comfort woman.

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Excerpt: A Gesture Life

A Gesture Life

Wheeler Publishing

Copyright © 2002 Chang-Rae Lee
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1587242877

Chapter One

PEOPLE KNOW ME HERE. It wasn't always so. But living thirty-oddyears in the same place begins to show on a man. In the courseof such time, without even realizing it, one takes on the characteristicsof the locality, the color and stamp of the prevailing dressand gait and even speech—those gentle bells of the sidewalkpassersby, their How are yous and Good days and Hellos.And in kind there is a gradual and accruing recognition of one's face, of being,as far as anyone can recall, from around here. There's no longer alingering or vacant stare, and you can taste the small but unequaledpleasure that comes with being a familiar sight to the eyes. In mycase, everyone here knows perfectly who I am. It's a simple determination.Whenever I step into a shop in the main part of the village,invariably someone will say, "Hey, it's good Doc Hata."

    The sentiment, certainly, is very kind, and one I deeply appreciate.Here, fifty minutes north of the city, in a picturesque townthat I will call Bedley Run, I somehow enjoy an almost Orientalveneration as an elder. I suppose the other older folks who livehere receive their due share of generosity and respect, but it seemsI alone rate the blustery greeting, the special salutation. When I buymy paper each morning, the newsstand owner will say, with a tonefeigning gravity, "Doctor Hata, I presume." And the young, bushy-eyebrowedwoman at the deli, whose homebound mother I helpedquite often in her final years, always reaches over the refrigeratedglass counter and waves her plump hands and says, "Gonna have theusual, Doc?" She winks at me and makes sure to prepare my turkeybreast sandwich herself, folding an extra wedge of pickle into thebutcher paper. I realize that it's not just that I'm a friendly and outgoingsilver-hair, and that I genuinely enjoy meeting people, butalso because I've lived here as long as any, and my name, after all,is Japanese, a fact that seems both odd and delightful to people, aswell as somehow town-affirming.

    In my first years in Bedley Run, things were a bit different.Even the town had another name, Bedleyville (this my attribution),which was changed sometime in the early 1970s because the townboard decided it wasn't affluent-sounding enough. The town infact wasn't affluent at the time, being just a shabby tan brick trainstation and the few stores that served it, some older village homes,several new housing developments, and the surrounding dairy cowpastures and wooded meadows, nothing fancy at all, which washow I was able to afford to move here and open a business. Therewere perhaps a few thousand residents, mostly shopkeepers andservice people, and the small bedroom community who were theirpatronage.

    I'd read about the town in the paper, a brief slice-of-life articlewith a picture of a meadow that had been completely cleared fornew suburban-style homes, just white stakes in the frozen groundto mark where the streets would be. It looked sterile and desolate,like fresh blast ground, not in the least hopeful, and yet I feltstrangely drawn to the town, in part because of the peaceful paceof life that the article noted, the simple tranquillity of the older, villagesection that made me think of the small city where I lived myyouth, on the southwestern coast of Japan. I had already driventhrough the more established suburbs nearer to the city and foundthem distinctly cold, as well as too expensive. I'd ask for directionsat a garage, or buy some gum at a candy store, and an awkwardquiet would arise, that certain clippedness, and though I neverheard any comments, I could tell I wasn't being welcomed to remaintoo long.

    When I first arrived in Bedleyville, few people seemed to noticeme. Not that they were much different from those in the othertowns, at least not intrinsically. Fundamentally, it seems to me, thepeople in a particular area are given to a common set of conditionsand influences, like the growth in a part of a forest. There may bemany types of flora, but only the resident soil and climate providefor them, either richly or poorly or with indifference. I suppose itwas because Bedleyville was still Bedleyville then, and not yet BedleyRun (though desperately wanting to be), and pretty much anybodynew to town was seen as a positive addition to the census andtax base. It was 1963, and from what I'd seen during my brief travelsin this country, everyone for the most part lived together, except,I suppose, for certain groups, such as the blacks, or theChinese in the cities, who for one reason or another seemed to liveapart. Still, I had assumed that once I settled someplace, I would betreated as those people were treated, and in fact I was fully preparedfor it. But wherever I went—and in particular, here in BedleyRun—it seemed people took an odd interest in telling me thatI wasn't unwelcome.

    Did this suit me? I can't be sure. I do know that once I decidedto remain in this country, and to live here in Bedley Run, the questionof my status mostly faded away, to the point it is today, whichis almost nothing; and I know, too, that this must have been beneficialto me over the years, to have so troubling an issue removedfrom the daily turns of my life. I did have a few small difficultiesfrom time to time, but it was always just the play of mischievousboys, who enjoyed making faces at me in the shop window, orchalking statements out front on the sidewalk, even going so far asto slather axle grease on the dumpster handles. I never reported theincidents, or confronted the perpetrators, and eventually these annoyancesceased. Later on, after the boys had grown up into men,some of the ones who settled in town would come into the store,to buy a bed tray, or a walker, or perhaps an ice bag for a feverishchild, and they would speak to me as if they had never done thethings I knew they had done, they would just make affable small talkand docilely ask my advice as they might from any doctor, their eyeswavering and expectant.

    I should mention now that I am not a physician of any kind, andthat I only ran a medical and surgical supply store in town, thoughfor many patrons it came to be regarded as an informal drop-inclinic, the kind of place where people could freely ask questions ofsomeone who was experienced and knowledgeable as well as openand friendly, a demeanor that quite a few doctors, unfortunately,no longer feature these days.

    I say all this not to boast or self-congratulate, but to remindmyself that though I was ever willing to help, it was the generousattitude of the customers that drew me out and gave me confidence,and that every decent and good thing that has come to mewhile I have lived here is due to some corollary of that welcoming,which I have never lost sight of. I know there are those who wouldsay I've too keenly sought approval and consensus, and if over theyears I've erred on the side of being grateful, well, so be it. I thinkone person can hardly understand why another has conducted hislife in such a way, how he came to commit certain actions and notothers, whether he looks upon the past with mostly pleasure orequanimity or regret. It seems difficult enough to consider one'sown triumphs and failures with perfect verity, for it's no secretthat the past proves a most unstable mirror, typically too severe andflattering all at once, and never as truth-reflecting as people wouldlike to believe.

    Indeed, I have long felt that I ought to place my energies towardthe reckoning of what stands in the here and now, especially givenmy ever-dwindling years, and so this is what I shall do. My oldstore, Sunny Medical Supply, is now run by a youngish New YorkCity couple who three years ago purchased it, with all the stock andinventory, and the two one-bedroom apartments above. Theyhaven't changed anything, really. A few weeks ago I noticed that thegold-leaf lettering I ordered when the town required all the villageshops to put up the same rustic style of sign is now quite chippedand dull, and needs refurbishing. In fact the whole storefront islooking weatherworn, unlike the other shops immediately besideit on Church Street, the stationers and the florists, whose windowschange regularly and have colorful sale announcements and displaysof merchandise.

    I know as well as anyone that it's challenging for a medical supplierto create an attractive storefront, that bedpans and insulinkits don't make for a naturally scintillating display, but with a littleeffort and creativity it's not long before you can come up with awindow that is almost pleasing to look at. And while I never expectedcustomers to flock into the store because of such attentions,I don't know how many times someone poked his or herhead in to compliment me, saying, "Pretty as a picture," or "Best onthe street," or "You've got some kinda style, Doc."

    Three years later, however, the store still has the very same displayfrom the last Easter window I made up. Really, it's a sad sightfor the eyes. Everything's been ruined by time and light. The petalsof the nylon tulips are dingy with dust and crumbling, and the blueplastic eyes of the stuffed rabbits have faded to a glazed, waterygray, the fur unevenly tufted and bare and generally feeble-looking.The only thing different is that the window's merchandise has longbeen reclaimed: the gowns unpinned from the walls, the potty nowgone, and finally, left matted in the plastic grass, the faintest impressionof a pair of orthopedic shoes.

    I finally decided the other day to call on the new owners, just tosee how they were doing. I take a walk of some length daily, partof my retirement routine, and so it's no trouble to make my waydown Church Street, which is the main thoroughfare of the town.For the first month or so after I sold the business to the Hickeys,I'd make sure to drop by regularly, perhaps two or three times aweek, to check on them and see if they needed any help or advice.

    Initially, I know, they were quite happy whenever the bell on thedoor tink-tinkled and they saw me step inside, especially Mrs.Hickey. The Hickeys were both new to the business, not just to sellingmedical supplies but to selling anything, and their one tenuousqualification for the work was that they were formerly EMS workers,partners in fact, driving an ambulance together down in thecity.

    I worried, of course, that the Hickeys were gravely inexperienced,and that they'd probably borrowed enough money that theirmonthly payments were dangerously high, and that with a youngchild in tow, they would find the demands of running a retail businessmore severe than they had ever anticipated. I didn't speakabout these concerns, as I did feel it was finally time to sell thestore. But I was concerned. So whenever I visited them, I would dowhatever was needed, calling on any past-due accounts at thecounty hospital and area retirement homes, negotiating with suppliers,and even checking the store books, reconciling inflows andoutflows. I must admit that after the new days of inactivity, I foundit pleasurable doing the work again, talking (and invariably joking)with former business contacts, appraising new products andbrochures, and then taking my deli sandwich and pickles at my olddesk with a mug of green tea, a canister of which I always broughtwith me on those days I thought I might drop in.

    Mrs. Hickey would always greet me warmly and immediatelyask how they ought to do this thing or that, and I'd set to work rightaway, until before I knew it, more than half the day had passed. Itwas Mr. Hickey, in retrospect, who was sometimes reticent, as hewould look up and nod wanly when I entered the store, and aftera few weeks I'd first check to see if Mrs. Hickey was there beforedeciding to go inside. And so it happened quite unexpectedly oneday, when Mr. Hickey asked if I might let them run the businessthemselves, that it was what they had paid me for and if I would finallyhonor that.

    I was confused for a moment, mostly by his tone, because itseemed I was merely there at their own wishes, but I realized thathe was telling me in his own way that they had received orientationenough. Mrs. Hickey looked mortified and excused herself to golook for something in the storeroom, and Mr. Hickey politely heldopen the door for me, not saying anything more, and I resolvedthen not to disturb them again until they found it necessary to contactme directly, when I should be happy to contribute in any way.

    Which they hadn't asked me to do, I admit, a few days ago whenI stopped by. But the sorry state of the window case, and the soberingtalk I had recently heard from some Church Street merchantsabout the illness of their son made me feel that I ought to call onthem at least once again.

    When I entered the store I found, to my surprise, no one there.The shelves were stocked, though somewhat lightly, and the deskand counter were haphazardly covered with volumes of papers andcarbons, the unmanned cash register appearing particularly exposed.The aisles had not been waxed in some time. About thewhole place there was the sense of a dwindling, the feeling you getwhen you enter a house people are moving out of, an alarmingspareness and disarray that almost seems to be the cause of theleaving, when of course it's just the result. I said hello a few timestoward the back storeroom, but I got no answer. Then I heardvoices, muffled, coming from what one might see as a closet doorbut was actually the back stair to the second-floor hall, where thetwo rental apartments were. The doorway was behind the counter,and naturally I went around, and then I cracked open the door, tohear who might be talking. For a moment, I had the alarming ideathat the Hickeys were being robbed, and had been taken upstairs tobe bound and gagged.

    But of course what I heard was their voices, speaking softly toeach other in a low, weary drone, as if they had been arguing atlength and now suddenly weren't. They were talking, I could tell,about their son, Patrick. Mrs. Hickey was saying something aboutgetting on Medicaid, now that there was no point in strugglinganymore. Mr. Hickey didn't answer, and I understood she was talkingabout the store and business. I thought I should leave then, forI suddenly didn't like the feeling of eavesdropping on them, whenthe shop telephone rang out. The sound froze me for a moment,and before I could get on my way, I heard a heavy gallop descendthe short stair, and Mr. Hickey opened the door just as I swung myselfaround the end of the counter.

    When he saw me he glared, raising his finger to say something,but the telephone was ringing and he said to me instead, "You holdon," and he picked up the handset, his eyes unwavering in their fixon me. Mrs. Hickey came down, too, and when she saw me shebroke into an easy smile. Her face was wet, her nose and cheekshotly flushed and rosy, and in spite of this it was wonderful to seeher again, to remember what an attractive and pleasant youngwoman she was, with such genuine warmth of spirit.

    "Doc Hata," she said, wiping her nose with a tissue. "It's so niceto see you again. Gosh, I'm sorry I'm like this." She blew her nose."That's that. Now, how have you been? You haven't been by in solong."

    "Forgive me," I said, "but you know how busy people are, whenthey have nothing to do."

    She laughed lightly at this and said, "For a while I wondered ifmaybe you had moved to Florida or someplace. But then I thoughtabout it and I knew better. You're not someone who would leavehis home so easily."

    "You're absolutely right," I replied. "Besides, that kind of heathas never agreed with me."

    "Do you still go on your two-hour walks?"

    "Every day," I answered. Mr. Hickey was still quiet, holding thehandset to his ear. I said to her, "Why don't we go together sometime?I head up through the state park these days, on the trailsthere, which are very pretty with the leaves full and shading. It'shilly, but not so hard. What do you think?"

    But before she could answer, her husband brusquely put downthe phone. "He's not having a good morning," he said to her, interruptingus as though he had been in our conversation all along. Hewas looking straight at his wife. "The new doctor is going to see himat one-thirty. I better get up there now." He regarded me for along, awkward moment. Then he said, "What do you want here,old man?"


    "Hold on, Annie. I'd just like to know what he wants from us.It can't be an accident that he's come today. Your buddy Mr. Finchat the bank didn't ask you to drop by, did he?"

    It was a strange notion, and I had no reply.

    "Well, you can tell him anyway he'll have the whole place soon.Lock, stock and barrel. We wish we could sell it, but do you knowwhat the place is worth? I bet you have an idea."

    "I can't say, Mr. Hickey."

    "Sure you can't. You only say nice things, I guess. Should I tellyou? About two-thirds what you sold it to us for. I'd have to find anotherhundred grand to clear the mortgage, after selling it. So itlooks like foreclosure instead."

    "He's not in the least at fault, James," Mrs. Hickey scolded. "Sojust please shut up now."

    "This isn't blame, dear. I'm not blaming anybody," Mr. Hickeyreplied. He was regarding me with much umbrage. "This is just information.Mr. Hata appreciates knowing what's happening in histown. We don't need a mayor because we have Mr. Hata. I'msorry—Doc Hata. I never understood why you're called that whenit's obvious you're not a doctor."

    "I don't refer to myself as one."

    "That you don't. That's true. But you seem to like the title. AndI think it fits you, too."

    Mrs. Hickey said, "Sometimes I despise you, James."

    "Sometimes I despise me," her husband replied, suddenly lookinghurt. He stared down at his feet. Then he tried to embrace her,but she turned away. "Oh, hell with it," he said, snatching his windbreakerfrom the rack on the wall. "Hell all." He marched out,leaving the door wide open.

    Mrs. Hickey gathered herself and shut the door behind him. Shewas quite angry, though it was clear she was also deeply embarrassedand sorry for me. I told her she shouldn't worry about myfeelings being hurt, for it was obvious her husband was under a terriblestrain. Mrs. Hickey thanked me for my kindness, and thoughI assented, I didn't truly feel that it was kindness, on my part. Notreally at all. It was an understanding, if anything. For I should saythat I know from experience that the bearing of those in extremecircumstances can sometimes be untoward and even shocking, andwe must try our best to understand what is actual and essential toa person, and what is by any indication anomalous, a momentarylapse that is better forgotten than considered time and time again,to little avail.

    Mrs. Hickey asked if I might stay and talk a little while, and I wasglad to. She told me more about her son. It was true what I'd heard,that his heart was congenitally diseased, and he was now in urgentneed of a transplant. He was on the national registry, of course, andbecause of his age and condition almost at the top of the list, but thedysfunction had accelerated, and the doctors now told them that hewas in real danger, that it was coming down to a matter of months,if a suitable donor wasn't located. This besides the fact that aftertwo and a half years, they were almost out of insurance.

    I had also visited on the day they were to inform the bank whattheir decision was about refinancing their mortgage, which was sixmonths in arrears. Business wasn't booming, given that the localeconomy was in recession (which seemed to befall the area, unfortunatelyfor the Hickeys, a short time after they bought mystore), and that Sunny Medical Supply now had to compete with afranchise of a large regional supplier, which had opened in theneighboring town of Highbridge.

    And yet with all this negativeness, Mrs. Hickey was still cheerful,joking and kidding and trying to put the best face on things,telling me how she took strength from Patrick, who never oncecomplained about sleeping at the hospital, or eating the food. I hadnever actually met the boy, though I thought I could see him easilyin his mother, whose sanguinity and resolve I admired withoutbound. I pictured him with her fair coloring and giddy spray offreckles, and the same sea-blue eyes, and then, too, possessed of theodd calm that very young children can sometimes have, even whenthey understand that dark fates may be near.

    Eventually some customers came in, and I urged Mrs. Hickeyto attend to them, while I should be getting on home. But before Icould leave the store she had come over to see me out.

    "Would you like to come see him sometime?" she asked me."We take shifts, so you wouldn't have to worry about James, if youcame when I was there. I could call you from the room."

    "I'd be very happy to meet him," I said. "Anytime you wish tocall me."

    Mrs. Hickey seemed pleased, and she stepped outside. It was asocial custom, strangely enough, that she'd picked up from watchingme years before, the polite duty of a host or proprietor in biddinga respectful goodbye. It brought a warm feeling to my chestto have her come out accompanying me. But the customers werestill inside, and I asked her please to go back and attend to them. Ivery nearly bowed, as if that might convince her, but then she didgo in, and I'd already turned down the street when she called outto me once more.

    "I just remembered," she said, her face brightening as she approachedme. She was holding a dusty box, the kind photographicpaper comes in. "I was cleaning out the storeroom last week, andI found this in an old briefcase. I'm sorry, I couldn't help but lookinside. There are all kinds of neat pictures in there."

    I could hardly remember leaving anything personal behind inthe store.

   "I noticed there's a young woman in many of them," Mrs.Hickey said. "She's very pretty. She's in quite a few, with you. Is shea relative?"

    "Yes," I heard myself reply, accepting the box from her. "Youmust be talking about Sunny."

    "Sunny? Did you name the store after her?"

    I said, "I suppose I did."

    "Where is she now?"

    "She came from Japan," I said, "many years ago, and stayed forsome schooling. She went back."

    "Well, she's certainly lovely. She must be a grown woman now."

    "Yes," I said, taking my leave. "I haven't seen her in quite a longtime. But thank you."

    "Will you call about our walk?"


    "And Patrick, too?"


    Before she could say any more I quickly made my way downChurch Street, following it to the traffic square where it meetsRiver and then Mountview, which is the street I live on. As Iclimbed the gentle rise of the old road, I wished that I hadn't spokeninaccurately about Sunny to Mrs. Hickey, but the moment,like so many others, passed too swiftly, as I didn't feel I could explainthings without further complication and embarrassment. Iwent the half-mile to the road's crest, where the house I boughtnearly thirty years ago stands amid a copse of mature elm and oakand maple. Inside, the house was warm and lighted. As usual I'd leftthe lamps on in the hall and kitchen, and I turned them off beforegoing upstairs. I often prepared myself an early dinner of soup noodlesor a casserole of oden with rice, but I decided to go straight upto my bedroom and read. It wasn't until the middle of the eveningthat I stopped, when it occurred to me that I should at least have asnack, so that I wouldn't toss in my sleep or wake up famished. I puton my robe and went out to the stairs, but instead of descending,I wandered down the hallway, to the far door, to the room whereSunny once lived.

    For some moments I stood before the door. When I finallyopened it, I was surprised by the sudden chill; the heating ducts hadlong been shut, and an icy curl of air lapped past my bare feet. I remembered,then, how it had taken longer than I expected to clearthe room completely: it was crammed full of her furnishings, everysort of bric-a-brac and notion and wall hanging. She had left thehouse in a hurry. In the following weeks I worked on the room inmy spare time, in the evenings and on the weekends. I rememberpatching and repainting the ceiling and walls, making sure to fix allthe mars in the plaster. There were larger pocks, into which I foundit easy enough to spade the filler. But it was the smaller ones, particularlythe tack holes, which seemed to number in the hundreds,that took the greatest part of my time. In the end, I found myselfdoing the work in half-foot squares, pressing in the paste with thetip of a finger, smoothing it out, and it wasn't until much later, asI'd drift into the room to inspect for missed holes, running myhand over the surfaces, that the whole project was quite satisfactorilydone.