I had asthma when I was young, so I never got to play sports much with my father.  While my brother and father practiced, I could only sit in bed, propped up by a stack of pillows.  As I read comic books, I heard them beneath our apartment window.  In the summer, it was the thump of my brother’s fastball into my father’s mitt.  In the fall, it was the smack of a football.  In the winter, it was the airy bounce of a basketball.


Though my father had come from China when he was eight, he had taken quickly to American games.  When he and Mother were young, they had had the same dances and sports leagues as their white schoolmates - but kept separate in Chinatown. (He had met Mother when she tripped him during a co-ed basketball game at the Chinatown Y.


Father was big as a teenager and good at sports.  In fact, a social club in Chinatown had hired him to play football against social clubs in other Chinatowns.  There he was, a boy playing against grown men.


During a game in Watsonville, a part-time butcher had broken Father’s nose.  It never properly healed, leaving a big bump at the bridge.  There were other injuries too from baseball, basketball, and tennis. Each bump and scar on his body had its own story, and each story was matched by a trophy or medal.


Though he now ran a grocery store in San Francisco, he tried to pass on his athletic skills to my older brother Eddy and me.  During the times I felt well, I tried to keep up with them, but my lungs always failed me.


When I had to sit down on the curb, I felt as if I had let my father down.  I’d glance up anxiously when I felt his shadow over me; but he looked neither angry nor disgusted - just puzzled, as if he could not understand why my lungs were not like his.

“S-s-sorry.” I panted.


“That’s okay.”  He squatted and waved his hat, trying to fan more air at me.  In the background, Eddy played catch with himself, waiting impatiently for the lessons to begin again.  Ashamed, I would gasp, “Go on... and play.”


And Father and Eddy would start once more while I watched, doomed to positively un-American, a weakling, a perpetual spectator, an outsider.  Worse, I felt as if Eddy were Father’s only true son.


And then came the day when the rat invaded our store.  It was Eddy who first noticed it while we were restocking the store shelves.  Was stacking packages of pinto beans when Eddy called me.  “Hey, do you know what this is?  He waved me over to the cans of soup.  On his palm lay some dark drops.  “Is it candy?”


Father came out of the storeroom in the rear of our store.  Over his back, he carried a huge hundred pound sack of rice.  He let it thump to the floor right away.  “Throw that away.”


“What is it, Father?” I asked.


“Rat droppings,” he said.  “Go wash your hands.”


“Yuck.” Eddy flung the droppings down.


While Eddy washed his hands, I helped Father get rid of the evidence.  Then he got some wooden traps from a shelf and we set them out.


However, the traps were for mice and not for rats.  The rat must have gotten a good laugh while it stole the bate and set off the springs.


Then Father tried poison pellets, but the rat avoided them all.  It even left a souvenir right near the front door. 


Father looked grim as he cleaned it up. “I’m through fooling around.”


So he called up his exterminator friend, Pete Wong, the Cockroach King of Chinatown.  While Pete fumigated the store, we stayed with my Aunt Nancy over on Mason, where the cable cars kept me up late.  They always rang their bells when they rounded the corner.  Even when they weren’t there, I could hear the cable rattling in its channel beneath the street.  It was OK, though, because my cousin Jackie could tell stories all night.


The next day, when we went back home, Father searched around the store, sniffing suspiciously for deadly chemicals.  Mother went upstairs to our apartment over the store to get our electric fan.


She cam right back down empty-handed.  “I think he’s moved up there.  I could hear him scratching behind the living room walls.”


Father stared at the ceiling as if the rat had gone too far. “Leave it to me,” he said.  He fished his car keys from his pocket.


“Where are you going?” Mother asked.


Father, though, was a man of few words.  He preferred to speak by his actions.  “I’ll be back soon.”


An hour and a half later he returned with a rifle.  He held it up for the three of us to examine. “Isn’t it a beaut?  Henry Loo loaned it to me.”  Henry Loo was a pharmacist and one of Father’s fishing buddies.


Mother frowned.  “You can’t shoot that cannon off in my house.”


“It’s just a twenty-two.”  Father tugged a box of cartridges out of his jacket pocket.  “Let’s go, boys.”


Mother sucked in her breath sharply.  “Thomas!!”


Father was surprised by Mother’s objection.  “They’ve got to learn sometime.”


Mother turned to us urgently.  “It means killing.  Like buying Grandpop’s chickens.  But you’ll be the ones who have to make it dead.”


“It’s not the same,” Father argued.  “We won’t have to twist its neck.”


Buying the chicken was a chore that everyone tried to avoid at New Year’s when Mother’s father insisted on it.  To make sure the chicken was fresh, we had to watch the poulterer kill it.  And then we had to collect the coppery-smelling blood in a jar for a special dish that only Mother’s father would eat.  For a moment, I felt queasy.


“You’re scaring the boys,”  Father scolded her.


Mother glanced at him over her shoulder.  “They ought to know what they’re getting into.”


I didn’t believe in killing - unless it was a bug like a cockroach.  However, I felt different when I saw a real rifle - the shiny barrel, the faint smell of oil, the decorated wooden stock.  I rationalized the hunt by telling myself I was not murdering rabbits or deer, just a mean old rat - like a furry kind of cockroach.


“What’ll it be, boys?”  Father asked.


Taking a deep breath, I nodded my head.  “Yes, sir.”


Father turned expectantly to Eddy and raised an eyebrow.


From next to me, though, Eddy murmured, “I think I’ll help Mother.”  He wouldn’t look at me.


Father seemed just as shocked as Mother and I.  “Are you sure?”


Eddy drew back and mumbled miserably, “Yes, sir.”


Mother gave me a quick peck on the cheek.  “I expect you to still have ten toes and ten fingers when you finish.”


As we left the store, I felt funny.  Part of me felt triumphant.  For once, it was Eddy who had failed and not me.  And yet another part of me wished I were staying with him and Mother.


Father said nothing as we left the store and climbed the back stairs.  As I trailed him, I thought he was silent because he was disappointed:  he would rather have Eddy’s help than mine.


At the back door of our apartment, he paused and said brusquely, “Now for some rules.  First, never, never aim the rifle at anyone.”


I listened as attentively as I had the disastrous times he’d tried to teach me how to dribble, or catch a football, or handle a pop foul.  “I won’t.”  I nodded earnestly.


Father pulled a lever near the middle of the gun.  “Next, make sure the rifle is empty.”  He let me inspect the breech.  There was nothing inside.


“Yes, sir,”  I said and glanced up at him to read his mood.  Because Father used so few words, he always sounded a little impatient whenever he taught me a lesson.  However, it was hard to tell this time if it was genuine irritation or his normal reserve.


He merely grunted.  “Here, Open this.”  And he handed me the box of cartridges.


I was so nervous that the cartridges clinked inside the box when I took it.  As I fumbled at the lid, I almost, felt like apologizing for not being Eddy.


Now, when I got edgy, I was the opposite of Father:  I got talkier.  “How did you learn how to hunt?”  I asked. “From your father?”


My father rarely spoke of his father, who had died before I was born.  He winced now as if the rat had just nipped him.  “My old man? Nah.  He never had the time.  I learned from some of my buddies in Chinatown.” He held out his hand.


I passed him a cartridge.  “What did you hunt?  Bear?”


“We shot quail.”  Father carefully loaded the rifle.

I was uncomfortable with the idea of shooting the cute little birds I saw in cartoons.  “You did?”


He clicked the cartridge into the rifle.  “You have to be tough in this world, boy.  There are going to be some times when nobody’s around to help - like when I first came to America.”


That was a long speech for Father.  “You had your father.”  His mother stayed back in China, because in those days, America would not let her accompany her husband.


“He was too busy working.”  Father stared back down the stairs as if each step were a year.  “When I first came here, I got beaten up by the white kids.  And when the white kids weren’t around, there were the other Chinese kids.”


I furrowed my forehead in puzzlement.  I handed him another cartridge.  “But they were your own kind.”


He loaded the rifle steadily as I gave him the ammunition.  “No, they weren’t.  The boys born here, they like to give a China-born a hard time.  They thought I’d be easy pickings.  But it was always a clean fight.  No knives.  No guns.  Just our feet and fists.  Not like the punks nowadays.”  He said the last part with pride. 


And suddenly I began to understand all the trophies and medals in our living room.  They were more than awards for sports.  Each prize was a sign that my father belonged to America - and at the same time, to Chinatown.  And that was why he tried so hard now to teach sports to Eddy and me.


When I finally understood what sports really meant to my father, it only magnified the scale of my ineptitude.  “I’m not good at fighting.”  As I closed the lid on the box of ammunition, I thought I out to prepare him for future disappointments.  “I’m not much good at anything.”


Careful to keep the rifle pointed away from me, Father unlocked the door. “I said you have to be tough, not stupid.  No reason to get a beat-up old mug like mine.”


I shook my head, bewildered.  “What’s wrong with your face?”


Father seemed amused.  He stepped away from the door and jerked his head for me to open it.  “It’s nothing that a steamroller couldn’t fix.”


“But you have an interesting face,”  I protested as I grabbed the doorknob.


“Are you blind, boy?  This mug isn’t ever going to win a beauty contest.”  He chuckled.  “I’ve been called a lot of names in my time, but never ‘interesting.’  You’ve got a way with words.


The doorknob was cold in my hand.  “I do?”


Father adjusted his grip on the rifle.  “I wouldn’t buy any real estate from you.”  And he gave me an encouraging grin.  “Now let’s kill that rat.”


When I opened the door, our home suddenly seemed as foreign to me as Africa.  At first, I felt lonely - and a little scared.  Then I heard Father reassure me, “I’m with you, boy.”


Feeling more confident, I crept through the kitchen and into the living room.  Father was right behind me and motioned me to search one half of the room while he explored the other.  When I found a hole in the corner away from the fireplace, I caught Father’s eye and pointed.


He peered under a chair with me and gave me an approving wink.  “Give me a hand,” he whispered.


In silent cooperation, we moved the chair aside and then shifted the sofa over until it was between us and the rat hole.  Bit by bit, Father and I constructed an upholstered barricade.  I couldn’t have been prouder if we’d built a whole fort together.


Father considerately left the lighter things for me to lift, and I was grateful for his thoughtfulness.  The last thing I wanted was to get asthma now from overexertion.  When we were done, Father got his rifle from the corner where he had left it temporarily.


As we crouched down behind our improvised wall, Father rested the rifle on it.  “We’ll take turns watching.” 


“Yes, sir,” I said, peering over the barrier.  There wasn’t so much as a whisker in the hole.


While I scanned the hole with intense radar eyes, Father tried to make himself comfortable by leaning against the sofa.  It made me feel important to know Father trusted me; and I was determined to do well.  In the center of the living room was the fireplace, and on its mantel stood Father’s trophies like ranks of soldiers reminding me to be vigilant.


We remained in companionable silence for maybe three quarters of an hour.  Suddenly, I saw something flicker near the mouth of the hole.  “Father,” I whispered.


Father popped up alertly on the rat hole.  His crouching body grew tense.  “Right.”  He adjusted his aim minutely.  “Right.  Take a breath,”  he recited to himself.  “Take up the slack.  Squeeze the trigger.”  Suddenly, he looked up, startled.  “Where’d it go?”


The rifle barrel swung back and forth wildly as Father tried to aim.  “Where?”


I thought I could see huge teeth and beady, violent eyes.  The teeth were the size of daggers and the eyes were the size of baseballs, and they were getting bigger by the moment.  It was the rat of all rats.  “Shoot it!” I yelled.


“Where?” Father shouted desperately.


My courage evaporated.  All I could think of was escape.  “It’s charging.”  Springing to my feet, I darted from the room.


“Oh, man,”  Father said, and his footsteps pounded after me.


In a blind panic, I bolted out of the apartment and down the back stairs and into the store. 


“Get the SPCA.  I think the rat’s mad,”  Father yelled as he slammed the door behind him.


Mother took the rifle from him.  “I’d be annoyed too if someone were trying to shoot me.”


“No.”  Father panted.  “I mean it’s rabid.”  We could hear the rat scurrying above us in the living room.  It sounded as if it were doing a victory dance.


Mother made Father empty the rifle.  “You return that to Henry Loo tomorrow,”  she said.  “We’ll learn to live with the rat.”


As she stowed the rifle in the storeroom, Father tried to re-gather his dignity.  “It may have fleas,” he called after her.


Now that my panic was over, I suddenly became aware of the enormity of what I had done.  Father had counted on me to help him, and yet I had run, leaving him to the ravages of that monster.  I was worse than a failure.  I was a coward.  I had deserted Father right at the time he needed me most.  I wouldn’t blame him if he kicked me out of his family.


It took what little nerve I had left to look up at my father.  At that moment, he seemed to tower over me, as grand and remote as a monument.  “I’m sorry,”  I said miserably.


He drew his eyebrows together as he clinked the shells in his fist.  “For what?”


It made me feel even worse to have to explain in front of Eddy.  “For running,” I said wretchedly.


He chuckled as he dumped the cartridges into his shirt pocket.  “Well, I ran too.  Sometimes it’s smart to be scared.”


“When were you ever scared?”  I challenged him.


He buttoned his pocket.  “Plenty of times.  Like when I came to America.  They had to pry my fingers from the boat railing.”


It was the first time I’d ever heard my father confess to that failing.  “But you’re the best at everything.”


“Nobody’s good at everything.”  He gave his head a little shake as if the very notion puzzled him.  “Each of us is good at some things and lousy at others.  The trick is to find something you’re good at.”


I thought again of the mantel where all of Father’s sports trophies stood.  Eddy gave every promise of collecting just as many, but I knew I would be lucky to win even one.


“I’m lousy at sports,”  I confessed.


His eyes flicked back and forth, as if my face were a book open for his inspection.  He seemed surprised by what he read there.


Slowly his knees bent until we were looking eye to eye.  “Then you’ll find something else,” he said and put his arm around me.  My father never let people touch him.  In fact, I hardly ever saw him hug Mother.  As his arm tightened, I felt a real love and assurance in that embrace.


Shortly after that, the rat left as mysteriously as it had come.  “I must’ve scared it off,”  Father announced.


Mother shook her head.  “That rat laughed itself to death.”


Father disappeared into the storeroom; and for a moment we all thought Mother had gone too far.  Then we heard the electric saw that he kept back there.  “What are you doing?” Mother called.


He came back out with a block of wood about two inches square.  He was carefully sandpapering the splinters from the edges.  “Maybe some day we’ll find the corpse.  Its head ought to look real good over the fireplace.”


Mother was trying hard to  keep a straight face.  “You can’t have a trophy head unless you shoot it.”


“If it died of laughter like you said, then I killed it,” he insisted proudly.  “Sure as if I pulled the trigger.”  He winked at me.  “Get the varnish out for our trophy will you?”


I was walking away when I realized that he had said “our.”  I turned and said, “That rat was doomed from the start.”  I heard my parents both laughing as I hurried away.


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