In any neighborhood, there is always an eccentric who keeps to himself, and so becomes a source of gossip and rumor. In my Long Island neighborhood in the early 1960's, it was Mr. Kim.
Mr. Kim didn't actually live in the neighborhood, but on its western outskirts. His house sat on a lot carved out of the scrub woods which filled both sides of the road leading west out of our town. He had to do his shopping and other business in town however, so he was considered a part of the neighborhood, if grudgingly. More than once when he walked down a busy sidewalk or went to the grocery store, I noticed people go out of their way to avoid him, refuse to acknowledge his greetings, and whisper about him amongst themselves.
Since it was still relatively soon after World War II, there was a great deal of anti-Japanese sentiment. A Japanese American, Mr. Kim was a target, even though he was an American citizen who fought in the Allied Army in Europe during the War. He was a part of the force which liberated Polish concentration camps at the end of the war. In one of these camps, he met and fell in love with one of the survivors. Her name was Marta Kardas, and Marta and Mr. Kim were married in 1946. At the time of their wedding, Marta was nineteen years old and Mr. Kim thirty. They lived together on the outskirts of our town until 1959, when Marta fell down a staircase in the house, broke her neck and died.
The authorities ruled her death an accident, but that didn't stop everyone from believing that Mr. Kim had killed her. All sorts of sordid stories circulated about that fateful night in Mr. Kim's life. He had beaten her to death first and then thrown her down the stairs. He had thrown her down the stairs, period, in a fit of anger. He had killed her in the woods and then brought her inside and tossed her body down the stairs to make it look like an accident. And so on.
My staunchly religious parents, though officially against prejudice and gossip, proved otherwise by their opinions and actions. I don't know why most adults think children don't understand that actions speak louder than words.
My mother and father directed me strictly never to go near Mr. Kim, or engage him in conversation. He was, they said, a "bad influence." But I was fourteen, and kids are adventurous and compassionate if they listen primarily to their own hearts. Mr. Kim seemed to me more sad than sinister.
I was riding my bicycle when I met him –-or rather, walking my bike. We boys rode our bikes or ran everywhere in those days. I preferred the road that led west out of town; the road Mr. Kim lived on. There were hardly any houses along it and mostly woods. I preferred the solitude, and the quiet made me think of bigger things than our gossipy village. Mr. Kim was often out when I rode past. He waved at me and I waved back. He seemed to understand that our communication could go no further. His front yard was a combination of half meticulously neat Japanese meditation garden, and half unbelievably crowded clutter of lawn ornaments of every imaginable degree. This fascinated me.
As it happened, one early summer day in 1965, I had ridden about a quarter mile past Mr. Kim's house when my rear tire went flat. I did the only sensible thing a bike rider with a flat tire can do without ruining the tire and rim. I turned the bike around and began walking home with it. Mr. Kim was out in the yard when I reached his house, and he walked up to the fence. "You have trouble," he said. He opened the gate to his tall white picket fence and motioned me inside. "You bring in –-I fix."
And so began a friendship that lasted all that summer. He fixed my tire and I told him of my interest in his garden and lawn ornaments. He was happy to hear it and taught me much about planning a garden and its significance. I believe it brightened his spirit to teach something he loved and to feel useful to someone, if only to a boy. We became very close. For one summer, he was more a father to me than my own father, who was always working to support a large family, and hardly ever home.
One night late in the summer he began to talk about his wife. "We meet at end of World War II," he said. "You know about War?"
I said that I wasn't alive then, but that yes, I knew about it. My father had fought in it.
"We meet when she release from concentration camp," he went on. "You know of this?"
I said yes, I knew what he was talking about.
"We fall in love and we marry. We love each other very much."
I smiled. So did Mr. Kim.
"She okay for years, but horrible things happen people in that camp. She never forget." He shook his head sadly as he said it.
"Nightmares happen," he went on. "She have fears. She not understand why she live but many others die." He wiped his eyes. He had never told this to another soul.
We were sitting in his kitchen, at the table. He rose, walked to a window and stared out for a long moment. Then he turned suddenly to me. "You tell no one what I tell you now, understand?"
I nodded solemnly.
"No one!" he said, emphasizing the point with a forefinger. "Not friend. Not brother or sister. Not mother or father. No one. Understand?"
"Yes, Mr. Kim," I said. "I understand. I will never tell anyone. Ever." And I kept that pledge until, now that Mr. Kim is long gone, I feel the story needs to be known. I think he will forgive me.
"She begin have deep depressions," he said. "Then she begin to drink. When she drink she become crazy. She drink the more, she become the more crazy. I try keep her from drinking. She scream at me and hit me. When she drunk, she rant and rave about war camp." He sighed deeply.
"One night, she drunk," he went on. "She sad and shamed. I try comfort her but she go crazy, try stab me with knife. I stop her, but she shocked at what she do. She say 'I don't want to live anymore!' She run top of stairs and throw self down. I try help her, but she die in arms."
"Oh, Mr. Kim!" I said. Not knowing what else to do, I threw my arms around him and hugged him. We sobbed against each other for some time.
When we composed ourselves, I said, "So it wasn't an accident. She killed herself."
"Yes," he said. "Sometimes things too big even for great love."
"I see why you've kept the truth to yourself."
"In this country, it is not an honorable thing."
I knew what he meant. I had an uncle who took his own life and I had heard the talk about him. "Suicide," I said.
"Yes," said Mr. Kim.
We never spoke of it again, but passed the rest of the summer companionably. When it was time to go back to school, I visited Mr. Kim, a bit sad at the knowledge that we would not be seeing each other as much. He had a surprise for me.
"I leave soon," he said. "I go back Japan. No place here this country."
I was saddened to hear it, but understood. He would never be happy or accepted here, either in this community, or in the country for which he fought in a war. We said our goodbyes and I never saw him again.
Even now that I've passed sixty years of age, Mr. Kim remains the most honorable man I have ever known. He chose to endure the life of a despised outcast for years. I don't believe anyone but me ever knew that he preferred to live this way rather than have his wife's memory and character tainted by the truth that she died a suicide.