Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Remembering Kim Lee: A Short Story

on October 14, 2021
Qilin (K’i-lin) Metropolitan Museum of Art

J.J. Washington threw down his backpack in disgust. His mother lay snoring on the living-room sofa, an empty whisky bottle cradled in her arms.

She loves that bottle more than me, he thought bitterly.

Staring down at her, he realized how old and ugly she looked. Her velvety, chocolate-brown skin had grown flaky and pale, and strands of gray threaded through her matted black hair. She had been pretty and gentle once, showering him with smiles and kisses when he came home from school. But that was before his father, a policeman, was gunned down and killed during a routine traffic stop. Since then, nothing had been the same.

It’s unfair, he thought angrily. My father was a good man. He didn’t deserve to die.

He ran out of the house into the bright afternoon sunlight, slamming the front door behind him. He wanted to lash out at somebody – anybody. Instead, he kicked an empty soda can down the sidewalk, drawing disapproving stares from a woman wearing a black head scarf and carrying a bag of groceries in her arms.

J.J. shrugged his shoulders and shoved his hands into the pockets of his faded blue jeans. His green Black Pride T-shirt was ripped under the arms, and his white sneakers were scuffed and dirty. He searched the littered gutter for loose change to pocket and lost objects to sell to Mr. Levitson, the junk dealer on the corner. But found nothing of value.

He wandered into the alley behind Big Al’s Soul Food Haven and knocked on the back door. Robbie, the grizzled old cook, sometimes offered him a plateful of barbecued pork and cornbread if he agreed to wash a few dishes. But nobody answered so he rummaged through the garbage for half-eaten cheeseburgers and soggy fries. Suddenly, someone grabbed him roughly from behind and shoved him down hard onto the grimy pavement.

A gigantic black man with bulging arms and rolls of blubber straining under a white T-shirt stained with grease, glared down at him. “Kid, I told ya never to come around here again!”

J.J.’s heart pounded with fear. He picked himself up from the ground and tried to run away, but the fat man caught him with one humongous foot, spilling him onto the pavement again. Tears filled his eyes as a burning pain traveled down his left arm.

“Leave the boy alone!”

J.J. looked up in astonishment as a short Asian woman with ivory skin and close-cropped white hair stepped out from the shadows, waving a long wooden stick. She was dressed in a gray jogging suit, and in spite of the pain in his arm, J.J. broke into a wide grin. On her tiny feet, she wore lime green running shoes.

“Aw, Kim Lee, I was just giving the kid a good scare.”

“You’ve done enough. He’s under my care now.” Kim Lee stood her ground, twirling the wooden stick in her hands like a master baton twirler.

Big Al slunk sheepishly away. Kim Lee helped J.J. up from the ground and examined his injured arm. He winced with pain as she prodded and poked, feeling for broken bones.

“Just a sprain,” she announced. “You come home with me. I’ll put ice on it. Give you some hot food, too.”

J.J. pulled away. “I can take care of myself.”

The old woman smiled. “It won’t take long. Then you’re free to go your own way. I make a mean chop suey. Got fortune cookies, too.”

J.J. grimaced with pain and the emptiness in his stomach. The old lady seemed harmless enough. What did he have to lose?

“Okay,” he said reluctantly. He followed her out of the alley, past a row of rickety wooden houses with iron bars on the windows, up a flight of narrow stairs to a small apartment located above Mama Rosa’s bustling burrito shop. The smell of spicy hot chili drifted with them up the stairs. J.J.’s stomach growled loudly.

Kim Lee’s apartment was neat and sparsely furnished. But the furniture was tattered and old, and J.J. could see that she was just as poor as everybody else who lived in this part of the city. He sat down at the kitchen table, and she placed an ice bag on his left arm. Delicious smells wafted from the stove. Kim Lee placed a steaming plate of chop suey and sticky white rice in front of him, and he ate greedily. She offered him seconds, and he ate some more. He drank hot oolong tea out of a small, white cup with no handles. Finally, she brought him a single golden fortune cookie on a fragile blue plate decorated with fierce yellow dragons.

“Break it open and read your fortune,” Kim Lee told him.

J.J. broke the hard, crescent-shaped cookie into two pieces and pulled out a small slip of white paper. “A unicorn will bring you luck,” he read out loud.

Kim Lee laughed and clapped her hands. “Yes!”

J.J. snorted in disbelief. “What are you talking about? Unicorns! Nobody believes in that stuff anymore!”

Kim Lee’s dark eyes grew misty and far away. “In China, when I was a girl, villagers told stories about K’i-lin, the many-colored unicorn with a single horn twelve feet long. He possessed great wisdom and power. When he appeared, it was considered good luck. Great leaders sought him out, but he was difficult to find. He moved as swiftly as the wind, his voice ringing out like a thousand wind chimes. He only lived for a thousand years, and when he finally disappeared, there was much sadness in the land.”

“But you can’t believe he was real!” J.J. protested.

“Here, let me show you something.” Kim Lee left the room and then returned, carrying a small, black lacquer box. She opened the lid. “Take it,” she said.

J.J. pulled out a round jade pendant hanging from a red silk cord and held it in his right hand.

K’i-lin,” Kim Lee said softly.

The boy traced the intricately-carved image with the fingers of his left hand. But this wasn’t like any unicorn he had ever seen. This one had the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse. Instead of the horn protruding straight from the forehead, it made a large curlicue over the animal’s head. It was the strangest creature he had ever seen.

“That was given to me by my grandfather before he died,” Kim Lee said. “It’s very old and valuable. I’ve treasured it my whole life. It has brought me luck.” J.J. handed it to her, and she placed it carefully into the black box. “May K’i-lin bring you luck, too, J.J. Washington.”

* * *

“Crazy old lady,” J.J. muttered as he found his way back home.

“Hey, J.J., where you been? We’ve been looking for ya!”

J.J. turned to see his friends, Tyrone and Emerson, on the sidewalk behind him. “Aw, I’ve been around.”

“My brother’s taking us to Disneyland on Saturday,” Tyrone said, bouncing a basketball up and down on the sidewalk. “Wanna come?”

“You guys are dreaming. Where would I get money for that?” J.J. said.

“Anywhere you can,” Emerson cut in. “I took twenty dollars out of my mom’s purse.”

“I can’t even get enough to eat,” J.J. said. “My mom drinks up every cent she gets. I’ve already checked her purse. There’s nothing in it.”

“Then you’re out of luck,” Tyrone said. “See you later.”

The two boys walked away. J.J. looked after them with envy. Disneyland! His father had promised to take him on his eleventh birthday, but a terrible accident happened on 79th Avenue, and he had been obligated to help. The family had gone out for pizza instead. A few months later, his father was dead. J.J. picked up a rock and hurled it at a pigeon sitting on a concrete wall. Not fair, not fair, not fair . . .

* * *

J.J. moved quietly through the darkness. It was ten o’clock, and the old lady would probably be asleep. He climbed the staircase cautiously, afraid of making too much noise. Under the doormat he found a key and fitted it into the lock. He pushed the door open slowly and slipped inside. Everything was quiet and still except for a clock ticking. He pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket and turned on the beam. Somewhere in the apartment he would find the jade pendant inside the little black box.

The light flashed on a large wooden cabinet with two glass doors. As he crossed the carpeted floor on tip-toe, a soft moan startled him, and he nearly dropped the flashlight in his hand.

The moan came again, and then someone cried out as if in pain.

I’ve got to get out of here, J.J. thought frantically; but not without the jade pendant. He pulled open the glass doors and there, on a low shelf, was the black lacquer box. He quickly grabbed it and hurried to the front door.

“Help me!” The cry was louder now, and J.J. stopped in his tracks. The old woman must be hurt, he thought. He remembered her kindness, and suddenly, he felt ashamed. He placed the black lacquer box back in the cabinet and opened the door to Kim Lee’s bedroom.

J.J. found the light switch and turned on the overhead light. Kim Lee lay sprawled on the carpet, her right leg turned out at a funny angle.

She saw him, and a wave of relief washed over her face. “J.J., I think my hip is broken. Call the paramedics!”

* * *

When J.J. opened the front door, his mother called out to him. “Is that you, J.J.?”

“Yes, mama.”

His mother sat on the living-room sofa, holding his father’s framed photograph in her hands. When she looked up at him, tears trickled down her cheeks. “Where’ve you been, baby? I woke up, and you were gone. It scared me. I couldn’t stand it if something happened to you, too.

“I called Pastor Harris down at the church, and it’s all arranged. I need help, baby, more help than I’ve ever needed in my life. He’s going to help us. I’m going to go to rehab, and your Aunt Jenny’s going to take care of you until I get back on my feet. I’m going to get a job, and we’ll be a real family again.”

J.J. remembered Kim Lee waving good-bye to him as the paramedics loaded her into the back of the ambulance. He thought about the jade pendant and the wonderful story of the brightly-colored unicorn named K’i-lin. The old lady isn’t crazy after all, he thought with a smile. A unicorn really did bring me luck.

J.J. gave his mother a big hug. “That’ll be fine, mama, just fine.”

Dawn Pisturino

October 13, 2021

Copyright 2009-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights reserved.


2 responses to “Remembering Kim Lee: A Short Story

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