For the sixth recess in a row, I sit on the red bench just off the playground. I’m supposed to be answering Mrs. Hatfield’s questions about my grandfather. These are her questions for my “write about someone famous” homework.
1) What is your grandfather’s job?
2) What did he do to be famous?
3) You say Paperson is a town near Sacramento, but I can’t find it on a map. Does it have another name?
4) How is it that your grandfather never finished fifth grade, but he’s been so successful?
I can’t answer her questions, so I watch other kids play tetherball instead. Actually, only two kids play tetherball. The rest wait in line. They do get turns, but most never even get to hit the ball before their chance is over. You see, the winner gets to serve and the winner is always one of the sixth graders. They hit the ball so it’s way high on your side of the line, so high that you have to jump and swing your arm at the same time to hit it back.
Usually, that means you either hit the rope and lose or graze the wrong part of the yellow ball and send it sideways instead of forward which makes the ball all spazzy. The same two kids win all the games which means that no one else gets to practice and get better. When I started having to sit here six recesses ago, the ball was brown from all the sixth grader fingerprints pressed into it and the rope was stringy from accidental fourth grade karate chops. The rope got so worn that Kevin Cuniberti, the biggest kid in the school, punched it and sent the ball flying towards the oak tree. You should have heard the shouts. It was the most exciting thing to happen at school since the president got shot last year and Mrs. Solomon, the nice teacher from third grade, sent us outside for fifteen minutes but told us not to play.
Anyway, all the kids in line ran towards the oak tree and made a circle around the ball with the little noose of rope still attached to that nostril thing at its top. Kevin Cuniberti didn’t go with them. He stood next to the steel pole mounted on the old tire filled with concrete, fists raised over his shoulders like Samson. I’m pretty sure that I’m the only one who saw him. Sometimes I hear kids tease Kevin because he doesn’t read aloud well. He’s good at math and Latin, but he has trouble keeping English words straight. I think he still likes tetherball because it’s mostly fourth graders. He doesn’t even care that we tell him that his freckles make his head look like a miniature golf ball.
The best part of Kevin Cuniberti’s sending the tetherball into orbit was that Mrs. Hatfield didn’t come to check on how I was doing with the report I’m supposed to finish, but can’t. When Mrs. Hatfield came out with her whistle, she first blamed our class for breaking the tetherball set.
“You all have to respect school property,” she told them. “Where I grew up, we didn’t have nice things to play with at school.”
Mrs. Hatfield came from Arkansas and she has a funny accent. I got in trouble once for asking her if they wore shoes to school where she grew up. I wasn’t trying to be mean. It was just something I’d seen on the Beverly Hillbillies. According to Mrs. Hatfield, she came from Arkansas not Tennessee and they really don’t wear shoes to school in parts of Tennessee but once you get west of Marion it’s not like that. I didn’t know what to say, so I told her the only two things I knew about either state, Knoxville and Little Rock.
Mrs. Hatfield laughed and sent me to my desk, but that’s the only time she laughed at anything I’ve said all year. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t like me. My parents say that it’s because I’m Chinese, though they don’t tell me that directly. They don’t seem happy that a private school hired a fourth grade teacher from the Ozarks. My Dad says that William Fulbright comes from Arkansas, but he was a Rhodes Scholar which I guess cancels out being born in Arkansas. He also said it’s the state where they had to send soldiers to get colored kids into school and William Fulbright’s opposing the troops was the only bad thing he ever did because no one’s perfect. So now I know two more things about Arkansas, but I don’t think either would have helped Mrs. Hatfield like me better.
After Jeff Feinstein convinced Mrs. Hatfield that no one broke the tetherball rope on purpose, everyone had to follow her to the pole while she tied the two broken parts together. Kevin Cuniberti broke it again the next recess. Everyone insisted that the ball landed in the oak tree somewhere, but all I know is that it never came down. Jeff climbed midway up the tree to find the tetherball and all he could see was a couple old four square balls and a bunch of number one red pencils. For some reason whenever Jeff does things like climb trees during recess, he never gets caught by the teachers. Dad says that’s because Jeff’s dad is a Doctor. I think that means that Doctors have special pills that keep their kids from getting in trouble at private schools.
Some kids say that Mr. Parker, the headmaster (it’s like a principal only fancier) got the tetherball down after we all went home last Friday and put it in the garbage can. I guess that’s where old tetherballs are supposed to go, but I don’t believe it. I think Kevin Cuniberti launched it into space like a Sputnik which the news people say was just the size of a softball and not nearly big enough to carry a bomb. I figure the tetherball with the sixth grader handprints will pop a parachute and land in the ocean somewhere. Either that or Kevin Cuniberti hit the ball so hard it broke into millions of pieces too small for anyone to see. If I were a tetherball, that’s the way I’d want to die. Who really wants to spend their entire life tied to a rope and getting wrapped around some steel pole by Kevin Cuniberti and then wind up in a garbage can?
Mr. Parker put the new tetherball on the set over the weekend. This one is bright yellow and it’s a little harder than the old brown one, but it looks a lot better. The same two kids still win all the games and everyone else just spends the whole recess waiting in line and maybe getting two chances to karate chop the rope, but it is more fun to watch. I’ve decided to pretend that the yellow tetherball is the sun and our whole solar system is one-big-really complicated-tetherball set orbiting a star spinning towards disaster only the planets have no way of figuring that out.
I learned a year ago not to tell anyone that I think about things like this. After I told Mrs. Solomon that I thought that the President might have been killed by the CIA, she called my parents. I figured that the CIA was supposed to protect us from all bad things, so if they didn’t protect the President then they must have had something to do with it. Mrs. Solomon told them it obviously wasn’t my fault, because an eight year old couldn’t think things like what I said on his own. She told my mom and dad to be careful about what I got to read; only I didn’t read it anywhere.
Dad told me that I have to be careful because I’m one of those people who remembers more things than I can understand. It’s a good thing, but it’s not always a good thing.
Someone touches me on the shoulder and I flinch. I’ve never liked people touching me. I don’t know why I’m like that, but it’s always been like that.
“Lucky, how are you doing with your essay?”
“I’m doing it, Mrs. Hatfield.”
She’s a few years older than my mom. She has dark hair, funny glasses, and doesn’t dress like the other teachers or any of the moms who wear bright colors and don’t cover up their arms. She’s got on a brown skirt and a white blouse with long sleeves like pictures of schools from before World War 2. The other odd thing is that Mrs. Hatfield says she has a daughter, but she doesn’t go to school here. All the other female teachers at the school have kids here. There was one not-married teacher, but she married Mr. Parker a year ago. Mrs. Hatfield says her daughter is a little older than us and goes to a special school. It’s so special she doesn’t even get to see her much. We asked, but she wouldn’t show us pictures of her daughter.
“Lucky, you’re watching tetherball. It’s been six recesses. Maybe I should just give you an F.”
“I’m getting it done.”
“It’s just 250 words, Lucky.”
“But I’m trying to answer your questions.”
When I turned my homework in, Mrs. Hatfield had all these questions she said that I should have answered.
“Didn’t you just ask your grandfather? Your mother said you would.”
“I can’t always understand what he says so my dad has to explain.”
I try to hide the mostly blank-blue-lined paper on my lap, but I don’t want to wreck the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” binder that’s underneath the paper any more than it’s already wrecked. The rings never lined up right and the cardboard is already poking out of the vinyl in one of the corners. The man at the store told my mom that it was junk because it was made in Japan. I had to have it anyway. It was the only Man from U.N.C.L.E. binder that had Illya Kuryakin on the cover instead of Napoleon Solo. Illya Kuryakin is like the only good Russian in the world and he works for U.N.C.L.E. to help save the world which proves that anyone can be a good person even if he comes from a Communist country.
Mrs. Hatfield plops next to me on the red bench and her thigh even hits mine. I pull away from her and I can tell that Mrs. Hatfield doesn’t like my doing that.
“Lucky, what happened to the questions I wrote down for you to fix your report?”
“I have them.”
“Shouldn’t they be out so you can look at them while you work on it?”
“It’s windy. They kept blowing away.”
“Lucky, why are you making this so hard?”
“I’m not trying to make it hard, Mrs. Hatfield. I just don’t know how to answer the questions.”
“Well, I asked if you wanted to write about someone else instead.”
“But you said that I couldn’t write about John F. Kennedy.”
Four of my classmates had done their reports on John F. Kennedy and when they read them in class I asked each of them if any book had said that maybe the CIA had done it.
“Lucky, we had too many JFK reports already. Can’t you just pick someone else?”
I wanted to do Mao-Tse-Tung, but my mom said that would be a bad idea. I would have done Khrushchev, but he doesn’t run Russia any more. He got fired because the Yankees were winning the World Series again and Russia thought they needed two Premiers to beat just one President.
Other adults laugh when I say that about Khrushchev, but Mrs. Hatfield doesn’t.
“Lucky, even if you do your grandfather, they’re very simple questions. I just don’t understand what’s going on here…And, frankly I don’t care. You need to get me your essay by tomorrow morning. I’m going to call your mother to let her know that right now and I’m going to tell her that you have to bring home the list of questions I gave you.
At the beginning of recess, Jeff Feinstein came up to me even though you’re not supposed to talk to anyone who’s sitting on the red bench and said, ”How come you still can’t play tetherball?”
“Have to do stupid Mrs. Hatfield’s report,” I whispered.
“Last week’s homework, the one about a famous person?”
“Mrs. Hatfield says I have to stay on the bench until I’m done.”
“Just look someone up in the encyclopedia. It’s easy.”
“It’s not that easy. At least it’s not for me,” I told him, but I couldn’t explain why.
It’s Wednesday and Mom tells me that I’m not going to get to watch “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” until I finish my essay and Dad reads it over. I sit in my bedroom at my white Danish Modern desk. When we moved from Paperson to our own home in Sacramento, Mom and Dad didn’t want Chinese furniture. They wanted to shop at Bruner’s and Macy’s instead and decided to start with my room. Instead of wood, my desk is made out of this cool-looking white plastic called “Formica”. My bed, which is bright red, doesn’t have springs. It’s a foam mattress on a platform that maybe makes me have non-Chinese dreams. My desk chair is made from molded plastic and it has an orange pillow on the bottom. The neat thing is that it swivels around in circles which I use to simulate the movement of the Milky Way.
Paperson is a town that’s thirty minutes by car from Sacramento. It’s near the river, because we have to drive on the levee to get there. My grandparents live there in this big house. There are three stores there, though the movie theater closed last year. There’s also a place called “Along the River” that’s near the stores. I think my Grandfather owns it, but I’m not supposed to go inside. I’ve never seen him go inside there either. When he’s home, he makes phone calls and people come to visit him to ask him for favors. A lot of them come from a long ways away. I don’t know why it’s not on any map. To tell you the truth Mrs. Hatfield, I’ve never seen it on a map either, but I’ve been there many times and we even used to live there.
I know you say that my grandfather must have gone to some kind of school to get rich, but he says that he didn’t though he wishes that he could have. My Dad told me to tell you that my grandfather’s a businessman. I wrote that for you before, but you wanted to know what kind. No one will tell me what kind. I think it might be because my Grandfather’s in the Chinese CIA, something called the Bing Kong Tong. He goes there with a bunch of other old men and they talk about secret things. My parents say that it’s Chinese stuff and that I’ll understand when I get older. I looked up “Tong” in the dictionary and it said “secret society” so that’s why I think it’s like the CIA. I don’t think my Grandfather killed President Kennedy though. He says that the Jews did that, not the CIA. The dictionary also said something about gangs, but my dad showed me that it also said “formerly”. He says the dictionary and the encyclopedia don’t always understand Chinese things.
My grandfather is famous because we love him very much and he loves us so much. That’s what Jesus is famous for too, so I think that’s a good thing.
Dad comes home from the restaurant just after I finish with my essay about someone famous. I hear him reading the list of Mrs. Hatfield’s questions back to my mom in his mad voice, only it was a quiet mad voice. A couple minutes later, Mom came in to my room to tell me,
“Lucky, your Dad and I talked and we’ve decided that you shouldn’t do your essay about your Yeh-Yeh.”
“But, Mom. I just finished. It’s 358 words. I don’t want to miss my show.”
“It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have suggested that you write about your Grandfather.”
“I wanted to show Mrs. Hatfield that Chinese people can be famous too even in America. Mrs. Hatfield says that Yeh-Yeh isn’t famous enough.”
“Your Yeh-Yeh is famous, but maybe in a way that Caucasians won’t understand.”
“Is he famous in a way that I can understand?”
“Lucky, I’m sorry; it was a bad idea. Your Dad’s right. We’ll help you write about someone else.”
“But what about my show? I did what I was supposed to do.”
“Your Dad will help you after “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” You can stay up late as long as you promise to wake up in time for school.”
“Did you know that Illya Kuryakin even speaks Chinese and he was a Rhodes Scholar? How can you be Russian and a Rhodes Scholar?”
“Lucky, it’s just TV. Not everything on TV is true. Why don’t you get started on your new report? I’ll call you when your show’s about to start?”
“Don’t you want to see what I wrote?”
Sometime after the letter E in the encyclopedia, I had to go to the bathroom and heard my parents still talking.
“He already knows. We’re going to have to tell Lucky some time,” my Dad said.
“He doesn’t know.”
“Why would you have told him to write about Pop?”
“I thought it was good that he wanted to write about someone Chinese. You’re the one who’s always telling Lucky how famous and important Pop is.”
“But we can’t have the school asking about this sort of thing. They’ll ask us to leave if they make sense of this. It was already the only private school in the city that would take a Chinese kid.”
“Maybe if you’d been home that night, you could have told him to do another essay.” My Mom’s voice got louder. I was afraid she was mad at me.
“I was at the restaurant. You know that.”
“I called that night. Al said you’d taken off.”
“Well, Al lies.” Both my parents were talking in mad voices.
“Tally, I’ve never seen customers in the restaurant after ten. You’ve said so yourself many times.”
“I gave Cally a ride home. She asked me to help her fix her door. I thought we were talking about Lucky’s homework.”
“We were. You know he remembers everything.”
“ He understands things kids his age don’t normally get.” It makes me smile to hear Dad say it.
“Well, Tally. You might want to think about that a little. He worships you.”
There are things I’ve never understood about THRUSH, the guys who give the Men from U.N.C.L.E. a bad time. First, they have all these cool guns, but they never hit the person that they’re aiming at. Actually, their guns aren’t as cool as the U.N.C.L.E. ones that have extra parts that turn them into sniper rifles. They’re not even as cool as the James Bond attaché case that has a gun inside and all sorts of things that are more dangerous than what they look like though maybe not as cool as that Chinese guy Odd Job whose hat has a knife blade built into its brim. THRUSH stuff is still really cool though. Second, if the camera guy always knows who they are, why can’t anyone else spot the THRUSH agent? This was a dumb episode. Who wants to know about Napoleon Solo’s old girlfriends?
Mom turns off the TV. Dad has me bring the encyclopedia into the living room so we can do my new report at his desk. He’s still wearing his coat and tie from work. He’s taken his pants off but not his shoes and socks. He says he learned it in the army so he wouldn’t get athlete’s foot. People sometimes say that I look like Dad which I like except that he’s sort of overweight and I don’t want to be that overweight and I always take my shoes off before I take off my pants.
“How about President Johnson?”
I shake my head, “He has a funny accent like Mrs. Hatfield.”
“I’m sorry that you don’t like Mrs. Hatfield.”
“She’s not that bad sometimes. I think she tries to be nice, but it’s like she doesn’t fit at school. I remember what that was like.”
“But it got better. Maybe it’ll get better for Mrs. Hatfield.”
“I don’t think they had Chinese people in Arkansas.”
“They have Chinese people everywhere, Lucky. I’ve never seen a city without a Chinese restaurant.”
Dad lights his pipe while I start with the letter “F” in the encyclopedia.
I want to do General Franco, but Dad says, “Choose someone you admire.”
“I admire Yeh-Yeh.”
“Everyone admires your Yeh-Yeh.”
Dad puts his hand on my shoulder and I don’t even flinch. I like the smell of his pipe tobacco even though smoking’s bad for you. A couple weeks ago, I showed Dad an article in the Reader’s Digest by a doctor who knows Jeff Feinstein’s father.
“Lucky, I want you to understand that you should be proud of who your grandfather is and what he does. Not everyone understands. He came to this country without schooling or money. He had very few choices and he does lots of good things with his money for the community.”
“The Chinese community?”
Dad nods. “Are we part of another one?”
I shrug. Dad asks another question, “Do you know what President Kennedy’s father did to make money?”
“He sold black and white scotch to people who didn’t have color televisions yet.”
Dad laughs. I like making my parents laugh. I’m good at making adults laugh except for Mrs. Hatfield. I’m no good at making kids laugh.
“He was a bootlegger and his son became President of the United States.”
“What’s a bootlegger?”
“It’s someone who sold alcohol illegally.”
“But you sell alcohol at the bar. Isn’t that legal?”
“It is now. It wasn’t legal when Joseph Kennedy did it. Maybe if you go to the right schools like his sons did, you can be President too.”
“I’d rather just be a senator. They don’t get assassinated by the CIA.”
“Lucky, why do you keep saying that?”
“It’s not just me; I heard one of your customers say it at the bar. Something about pigs in a harbor and some gangster called Lucky Luciano. Maybe Al Capone shot President Kennedy. Was I named for Lucky Luciano?”
Dad pointed at the encyclopedia. “Lucky, why would we name you after a gangster? You know you got your name because I caught a ring from the lucky bomb at the River God festival just before we conceived you.”
I’ve heard the story before, but I like to find ways to make Dad tell it to me.
“So how come drinking was illegal?”
“Because people thought it was bad.”
“So it isn’t bad for you?”
“It’s still bad for you, but people aren’t perfect and they need to be allowed to do bad things now and then or they go crazy. I mean adults, not kids of course.”
“Dad, do you have to do bad things too? Will I have to do bad things after I’m not a kid?”
Dad points to the encyclopedia again. “It’s late, Lucky…You already know that I still smoke.”
“But you don’t smoke unfiltered cigarettes.”
Dad nods, thinks a little bit, and then opens his hands towards me. “Lucky, I read what you wrote about your Grandfather. You did a good job. It’s just that Mrs. Hatfield won’t understand and might get the wrong idea.”
“What’s the right idea?”
“Your grandfather loves you and he loves us. Ninety miles away in Reno, what he does is perfectly legal.”
“What does he do that’s illegal?”
“Lucky, I promise you that Mom and I will explain it to you when you’re ready. I do think you are ready to understand that Paperson’s not on any maps because it used to be illegal for Chinese to come to California.”
I run my hand over the map of the world on my blue plastic pencil box. It has two white cardboard dials on the side. One dial has all the country names. The other dial has the names of the capitals. Grandfather brought five hundred of them back from a factory in Taiwan. The country’s marked on the map as “China” while what used to be China is called “PRC”. Mom was going to let me give the pencil box atlases to my classmates to show them what my Grandfather does, but now Dad doesn’t think it’s a good idea even if it includes all the countries that have East and West or North and South versions. Dad says the plastic is really brittle and if someone cuts himself, people will blame it on China.
“I’m ready for the other stuff,” I say.
“You’re not right now. You have to finish your homework so you can play at recess again.”
“But Dad, I don’t care if I finish. I hate tetherball.”
“You hate tetherball. Why would you hate tetherball?”
“Well sometimes, I look at it and it’s like this big yellow head hanging from a rope that everyone wants to smack. That’s just not fun.”
Dad laughs, but I don’t know why he’s laughing.
“You know when I was a kid, I loved tetherball. Everyone in my school was Chinese or Japanese, but instead of a yellow ball, we had a white one. I was really good at it too.”
I make a picture in my head of the earth as a tetherball. I keep trying to hit the China part of the ball which I either can’t find or understand. Kevin Cuniberti keeps smacking the America part. The ball keeps winding around the pole until it strangles all the China out of my side of the line. It doesn’t feel that bad though. I even kind of like it.
“So how do I pick someone that Mrs. Hatfield’s going to say is famous enough for my report?”
Dad picked up the encyclopedia, flipped through the tissue thin pages, and pointed at one of the last biographies in the volume. “This one will be just fine and everyone’s going to be happy.”
“And you and Mom won’t be mad at each other about my homework?”
“We’re not mad. We’re just discussing parent things, it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other or you. Who said we were mad?”
As it turned out, Jeff Feinstein was right. It took me less than half an hour and Dad was right too. Mrs. Hatfield gave me an A for my report on J. William Fulbright, the senator from Arkansas. He wore shoes to school because that’s what you do in Arkansas (that wasn’t in the encyclopedia). J. William Fulbright wanted all the different people of the world to talk to one another, but that didn’t make him a Communist. He was even helping America fight Communists by passing a law against them in the Tonkin Gulf. That wasn’t in the encyclopedia either. Dad buys The New York Times now and then to help make me smart. He reads it first though because nine year olds outside New York don’t read newspapers that don’t have a comics page. There just happened to be an article in this one with J. William Fulbright’s name in the first paragraph. I now know things about J. William Fulbright that I don’t about my grandfather.
Every state has senators, but I think there will be a Chinese president before they have one from Arkansas especially if it’s going to be someone like Mrs. Hatfield. I didn’t tell Mrs. Hatfield that even though she seems to like me better now. I’ve learned not to talk about some things, even though I still remember them. Maybe after my parents decide that I’m old enough for them to explain what Yeh-Yeh does and why non-Chinese wouldn’t understand, I’ll write my own report for some teacher who’s not Mrs. Hatfield and who laughs at the things I say. Maybe by then, I’ll be too old for tetherball.