A Bilingual Halloween

For 35 years she’s been speaking English.

At a Korean orphanage, at age 9, 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 79 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, 35 years later, she is a mother of two sons, still trying to perfect her English. One chilly October day, near Halloween, the mother, frustrated with her adopted language, imagines how Trick-or-Treat will turn out in her Indiana home:

Mother says to Jae, her hazel-eyed, 10-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 Mother, and says to his pre-teen brother on the living room sofa, “Ooh. Mom said a cuss word.”

She blushes.

Sheet, shit.

Costume, custom.

Sleep, slip.

Rod, wrought.

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 5-foot-6 pre-teen grabs a grocery sack.

At the house with the rod-iron gate, a Grim Ripper heaps several packets of M&M’s into the boys’ bags. Next door, the frowning witch with the pointy black hat wraps her arms around a black cat yayong-yayonging and 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 and 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 in hand and the sucker in his mouth, he heads to his room.

While Mother answers the bell, Jae, with his eyes big, has been gobbling Tootsie-Rolls, M&M’s, a Butterfinger and 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 retches into the commode. Mother, holding her breath, follows with a damp washcloth and wipes his face. Jae s hazel eyes lock onto Mothers 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 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.

About the Author

InSuk Jo

InSuk Jo received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College and teaches English at the University of Southern Indiana. She writes under her maiden name, InSuk Jo, and is looking to publish her memoir in the near future.

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