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A Bilingual Halloween

By InSuk Jo

For thirty-five years she’s been speaking English.

At a Korean orphanage, at age nine, she began learning English by memorizing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” learning that in English puppies woof woof, rather than mong mong, and that cats meow rather than yayong. She and her seventy-nine friends sang to the American Marines, sailors, and petty officers who monthly visited them at Hye Sim Won Orphanage in Seoul. In exchange for medical treatment, the girls, under the supervision of the orphanage mother, served apple slices to these foreigners.

These apples a chosen girl had brought from the kitchen, the kitchen where the cook had allowed her to eat the peel.

The chosen girl was adopted by a petty officer and his wife and brought to America.

No longer a girl now, thirty-five years later, she is a mother of two sons, still trying to perfect her English. One chilly October day, near Halloween, frustrated with her adopted language, the mother imagines in her Indiana home how Trick or Treat will turn out:

Mother to Jae, her hazel-eyed ten-year-old son, “What do you want to be for Halloween?”

“A ghost.”

Mother says, “Get a white shit from the linen closet.”

Jae giggles, points his finger at his mother and says to his preteen brother on the living room sofa, “Ooh. Mom said a cuss word.”

She blushes.

Sheet, shit.

Costume, custom.

Sleep, slip.

Rod, wrought.

Retch, wretch.

Reap, rip.

They still sound alike. After four years of college English courses.

She shakes her head at her laughing son. “You still want help with your custom?”

From the sofa, Dana, the brown-haired seventh-grader looks up from a sci-fi novel and says, “Costume, Mom.”

On Halloween night, Mother says to Jae as he sleeps into his custom, “Be careful of the rod iron fence. You reaped your pants and nearly poked your wrist the last time you tried to leap over the gate.”

“I’ll go along to make sure he’ll be okay,” Dana says. No costume for him this year, he’d said earlier in his deepening voice. Minutes later, as the two boys head out, the five-foot-six preteen grabs a grocery sack.

At the house with the rod iron gate, Grim Ripper heaps into the boys’ bags several packets of M & Ms. Next door, the frowning retch with the pointy black hat, her arms wrapped around a black cat yayong-yayonging, gives a glare. Later, some teens will toilet paper her Magnolia tree.

The moon lights the street as a puppy, mong-monging, scampers after the growing crowd of children.

At the white brick house, a dentist hands out shiny new hot wheel cars--hot wroughts. Jae grins at his purple PT Cruiser and says, “Thank you.”

At the end of the street, their sacks full, the two brothers turn homeward.

In their house they dump their goods on the kitchen table. Between answering the doorbell for trick-or-treaters, Mother checks her sons’ candies. Safe to eat.

The middle-schooler scans his booty scattered on the table, picks up a box of Milk Duds, one Sneakers, a Tootsie Roll, then puts it back, replaces it with a Tootsie Pop. The rest he scoops back into his bag, then with his favorites, the sucker in his mouth, he heads to his room.

Jae, his eyes big, while his mother answers the bell, has been gobbling Tootsie-Rolls, M & Ms, a Butterfinger bar, chocolate kisses. Gobble, munch, chomp, chew those Milk Duds.

Later, as Mother clicks off the front porch light, she hears, “Ooh, Mommy, I don’t feel so good.”

Jae is frowning and rubbing his tummy. He dashes into the bathroom and wretches into the commode. Mother, holding her breath, follows with a damp washcloth and wipes his face. Jae’s hazel eyes lock with his mother’s brown ones, and he smiles. She releases her breath.

Minutes later, teeth brushed, as Jae sleeps his left foot into his pajamas, he says, “Mommy, can I sleep in you and Daddy’s bed tonight?”

“May I,” she says.

“May I?”

As Jae slips into bed, Mother wipes the smidgen of chocolate off his cheek and remembers back to that October night when she was a child, sitting on the Orphanage kitchen step, watching the cook deftly peel the shiny red apple, round and round, and Mother remembers the cook handing her the ringlet and the crisp crunch of that first peel.


 

InSuk Jo is working towards an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. Therefore, she hides from her family and writes.

 

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