They used to run a grocery store down in the bad part of town. The bad part of town wasn't really so bad back then, in the 1940's and '50's. This little grocery was their life, probably like a lot of Koreans in Los Angeles who got blindsided by the Rodney King riots. But this was in a time long before anything like that would have been possible.
I would go stay for a couple of weeks at a time 'cause I was an only child and Judy, their daughter, was an only child, too. She was a couple of years older than me, but we managed to find a way to get along. She was into Elvis and I was into coloring books. I liked Elvis OK and she still liked to color. We watched King Kong on the black and white TV in her house one night and it scared me so bad I wanted to go home. I was in that same house again today, at least 40 years later, and King Kong was playing on the Turner Classic Movies station. That was weird, but I'm getting used to weird by now.
Aunt Lorene and Uncle Hubert. And Judy, the only child daughter. They would come home from that little grocery store every day and sort the money. Their only customers were black folks, most of whom bought on credit until their check came at the first of the month. Hubert would sell 'em cigarettes one at a time. There was no hatred in this, even though they sure didn't think of the customers as equals. But there was a sense of humanity about it all that kept things peaceful.
I'd sit down there in that concrete store during the day when I was visiting, and I loved it. I loved watching Hubert cut the bologna into slices while I sucked on all the hard candy I could eat. You ever had a soft peppermint stick and saltine crackers at the same time? (I did not like watching folks eat pickled pigs' feet out of the big jar with funny water in it.)
Judy grew into the queen of her high school in that small Mississippi town. She went to Mississippi State and was doing great in college. Until one night when she got into a car to go to Columbus with a couple of drunken boys and another girl. Everyone lived after the crash except Judy.
Have you ever seen a pair of parents lose an only child? I hope you never do. The horror of it is explosive at first, then worse a few days later, but the real damage is seen in years. No conversation can be undertaken without a mention of Judy. What Judy would have done; what Judy thought of this or that; what Judy would have turned out to be.
Hubert died several years ago. Lorene developed Alzheimer's disease. Have you ever watched that happen to someone? You probably wouldn't make jokes about Ronald Reagan if you had. At first, it's just the little twitches of things that don't make sense. "There's a man standing out there by the fence, and I don't know what he's doing?" Then it gets worse. There are people who are coming to take her somewhere, and she doesn't want to go. Or, even worse, she has to get somewhere and she has to be there right now. Give her the car keys! This always happens in the middle of the night.
Drugs are used to cure the dementia. The drugs make her tired. She lays down one day, and this strong woman who used to take care of everything around her can no longer get up out of bed. So now she lies there, on the same side, curled up like a canary that is dying. Luckily, she's in the home of a family member, so she will live a few more years. In a nursing home, she would stop eating and die within weeks.
She lies there, on the same side, her frail fingers clutching at the sheets or at the bed rail, or sometimes just tracing patterns in the air. Her arms and fingers are all that she can move nowadays. You sit beside her and she looks right through you with those milky white eyes. She'll talk to you if you like, but it's just in small whispered breaths. You ask her how she's feeling and she says,
"I can't rightly say."
That means more than anything you've heard all day.