That up there’s Juju. Birth name’s Juliet. As you can see by all her pens, girl likes to draw.
Juju wouldn’t let me stop taking pictures of her with my digital camera, because she couldn’t get enough of looking at herself in the LCD screen on the back. After the seventh straight photo, I told her my camera was tired from playing so much and needed to take a nap.
Rich calls Juju his little “Jap-ican.” That’s because her mom’s Japanese and Rich is Mexican.
Not only is Juju criminally cute - she almost never existed. Because a year before she was born, Rich was almost murdered in Turkey by a husband-and-wife team of carjackers.
Some of you longtime readers might remember this story, but the couple had pretended to be stranded on the side of a remote Turkish highway after midnight, and Rich had offered to give them a lift to the next town. After five miles, the husband asked Rich to pull over so that he could get out of the car for a smoke.
While the husband was smoking, the wife tried to distract Rich by trying to speak to him in Turkish while pointing to random words in a Turkish-English dictionary. When Rich turned to see where the husband was, he saw him just outside his window, swinging a large rock at his skull.
Rich was able to react just quick enough so that he didn’t die immediately, but the rock still crushed him on the side of his head. Blood started to gush down his face, yet Rich was still able to cling to consciousness; so the husband climbed into the backseat and started to strangle him from behind.
Then Rich died.
… or so he thought. Because he suddenly woke up as they were stuffing his presumably dead body into the trunk of his own car. Thinking he had come back as a zombie, the wife ran screaming hysterically down the dark highway. The husband? He tried to re-strangle Rich.
But this time Rich was able to strangle the guy back and, with hot revenge pumping through his veins, he was lifting him off the ground by his throat, Vader-style. Rich then attempted to smash the Turk’s brains out by slamming him head-first onto a guard rail post. But instead, he ended up hurling him over the guard rail, and the would-be murderer tumbled a hundred feet down a steep hill.
As he watched the guy woozily try to crawl away at the bottom, Rich seriously contemplated sliding down the hill to finish him off. Instead, he jumped back in his car and drove to a hospital. A couple of months later, he was back in Hacienda Heights at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve, asking to speak with me.
Prior to that, we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in almost ten years.
Rich and I were best buddies from childhood through high school.
He was the one who told me that I should pursue a career as a writer back when I was an eighth-grader who was 110% certain his future was in opthamology. But then again, the dude wanted to grow up to be an FBI agent so he could overthrow the Mafia, so how was I to take his advice seriously?
His occupational suggestion was based on a short story I’d written and read in front of our English class about a fat guy’s disastrous encounter with a lawnmower called “Mowing the Lawn.”
The class was laughing the whole time I was reading it - most likely because I was urinating all over myself with nervousness. But Mrs. Kalis, my English teacher, thought it was because I was a humorous little Oriental. She even had me read it again for an encore, and then she gave me an A++. That’s right, two +’s. Later that year she even gave me an A+++++. Looking back on her unnaturally cheerful disposition, I realize my grades had nothing to do with my writing and everything to do with cocaine.
Rich stopped talking to me when I was a sophomore in college.
We’d been drifting apart anyway after he moved to Ontario halfway through high school and became a completely different person. Although he was heavily recruited his senior year by Harvard and other brainiac schools for his 4.0 GPA and national ranking in cross country, Rich inexplicably got a job as an assistant manager at McDonalds and dropped out of high school.
When I was in town for winter break, he told me that he’d gotten married at 1 AM that morning in Vegas and took me up to his bedroom to introduce me to his month-old baby daughter. Rich was 19.
Later he’d tell me he saw a look in my eyes that he interpreted as disappointment so deep that he was too ashamed to see me anymore. And despite my following attempts to reach him over the years, he avoided all contact with me.
We’ve hung out three times since then, including dinner tonight. Rich is in the Air Force, and in between “business trips” to such vacation hotspots as Iraq, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, and Nigeria, he’s stationed in the sensual paradise that is Oklahoma.
He was out in LA this week to settle yet another legal battle with his first ex-wife (Yes, the one he married when he was 19. The custody battles have lasted longer than the actual marriage.). So we met up for Korean food, for which he brought along his new girlfriend and I brought mine. I figure since he’s heading out to Seoul for a year in November, the man should at least have his first taste of kalbi.
Besides his first ex-wife, Rich has a second ex-wife to complete the pair. He has four kids – two with each ex – with the youngest being Juju. And yet the guy hasn’t changed at all.
Right before dinner, he handed me this folded sheet of green construction paper. It was faded, but I could easily make out the drawing of a rusty lawnmower surrounded by a forest of giant blades of grass. Right above it was the title written in blue felt-tip marker: “Mowing the Lawn.”
“No fucking way,” I said as I turned the page. “You did not save this fucking thing …”
And there it was, my first short story in all its pencil-scrawled glory. A++.