Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
ONE SMALL STEP
The day after he turned 8, Eddie Wong watched Neil Armstrong's giant step for mankind on the television while perched on the couch between Grandpa and Dad. Mom was changing little sister's diapers, so they missed history in the making. They missed the sight of Neil suspended in the air, almost flying.
When Grandpa asked his grandson what he thought, Eddie said, "I want to be the first Asian man in space."
"I think Mister Sulu has you beat," said Grandpa. "Though if you ask me, I think Spock is really Asian, too, maybe a Jap."
"None of them are real," said Dad. "'Star Trek' is just a show, and its science is shoddy at best. Nothing's real on television."
"Mister Armstrong's on television," said Grandpa. "That's science brought to life. Tell me, Ed, you want to be a scientist like your father?"
"No," said Eddie. "I want to walk on the moon."
"Let's start with walking here on Earth," said Dad. "You have to exercise your leg every day." He tightened Eddie's new brace, designed to straighten his bowed leg. "You have to strengthen your eyes if you want to look at the skies."
"I will," said Eddie, pushing his glasses up his nose. He was determined one day to bounce-fly like Neil.
"And you can visit Grandma on the moon." Grandpa unwrapped his orange handkerchief and offered Eddie a peppermint before taking one for himself. "I'm going to visit her one day, too, but not in a space suit."
"What kind of suit?" asked Eddie.
"Whatever paper outfit you send me," said Grandpa, chewing on his peppermint.
"What kind of paper?"
"Whatever you burn up with the incense. Say, how about the latest newspaper? So when the smoke rises and reaches the moon, I will know the latest headlines. I will look so smart and dashing that Grandma will fall in love with me all over again."
"Do you think Neil Armstrong saw Grandma?" asked Eddie.
"Naw, she's shy. She probably hid on the dark side of the moon."
"Pop, stop filling his head with false stories," said Dad.
"Every story has a grain of truth in its heart," said Grandpa. "And I want a three-piece paper suit. Remember that, Ed."
"I will," said Eddie.
Grandpa winked at the boy, something he always did before he asked his favorite question: "So if you could choose a new name, Mister Eddie Wong, what would you call yourself?"
"Neil Legstrong," said Eddie, and Grandpa laughed, ruffled Eddie's hair and tapped Eddie's brace.
The corner of Dad's mouth twitched, dimpled, yet he said, "Wong is a perfectly good name. It means King."
"We're in America now," said Grandpa. "There are no kings in America."
"What about in China, Pop?"
"There are no stories left in China," said Grandpa. "That's why I came here."
"Really?" asked Dad. But the older man merely smiled, crunched his peppermint twice, and closed his eyes.
Grandpa was always in charge of Eddie as long as the boy could remember. A retired Fighting Tiger who fought in the War for the U.S., Grandpa told the best stories about piloting airplanes against the kamakazi Japs. But there was one story he never told, one story Eddie never heard until Grandpa was gone.
When Eddie was 8, almost two months after Neil took a step for mankind, Eddie's family watched the last episode of "Star Trek" together, and the next morning Grandpa died. It was his heart, his parents said. A month later, during the first semi-sunny day in a rainy week, they decided to honor Grandpa's memory and take a private family trip to Angel Island. After 20 minutes, they stopped when 2-year-old Lizzie complained her feet hurt.
"Perhaps I should take Lizzie," said Mom. "So you can carry...." She did not look at Eddie, but he knew she was thinking of him and his leg.
"What do you think, Ed?" Dad knelt to look him in the eye, though Eddie's glasses were so fogged, Dad looked like a ghost. "There's a bit of a hike left."
Eddie hesitated. His leg throbbed, and his brace seemed to weigh twenty pounds.
Eddie wiped his glasses carefully with his orange handkerchief. As he settled his glasses on his nose, a brisk breeze ruffled Eddie's hair. He could see clearly the concern on his parents' faces, and he wished for Grandpa's hearty chuckle and peppermints. "Let's go," he said, ignoring the pain in his leg. "I'm training for my moon walk."
They hiked for 40 minutes until they reached a dilapidated cluster of buildings within thirty feet of the island shore. The leaves of the few spare trees had half fallen, the remainder in danger of being blown away by the wind. Even though the sun still shone, fog crept towards the barracks.
Dad helped Mom inside before coming back for Eddie, who hesitated at the muddy gap between the step and the barrack doorway. The gap looked wider than he could cross, and he imagined how his good leg would crack under his brace should he miss the leap.
"Hurry up, Eddie," said Dad. "Do you want me to carry you?"
Eddie shook his head, even though his braced leg was sore, and his other one was trembling. He stared at the gap, wondering how he could get his brace across, wondering how much it would hurt if he slipped and fell. He peered into the shadows of the barracks, but could not see anything except his father's hand through the steam on his glasses.
"Looks like ghosts live there," Eddie whispered.
"There are no such things as ghosts," said Dad, shifting a drooling Lizzie on his back. "It'll be warmer inside."
The buildings were damaged by a fire years ago and were due to be torn down in a matter of months. As Eddie walked beside his family, the wood of the floors creaked under the clang of his brace. He was surprised at the walls' bright yellow color, a shade darker than sunlight, a shade lighter than canary. He took off his glasses and pressed his hand against the yellow. His fingers traced the walls' indentations, shallow in the wood like someone wearing metal shoes had walked up the wall, leaving near-invisible marks.
"Eddie, put on your glasses," said Dad. "And don't touch the walls. They're full of words."
"I can't read them," said Eddie.
"Chinese words," said Dad. "Grandpa could read them all. You should know better."
"But what do they mean?" asked Eddie.
"Don't ask silly questions," snapped Dad, continuing his study of the walls.
Eddie's glasses fogged as his face heated, and he swallowed phlegm stuck in his throat. He felt a warm hand ruffle his hair, and he thought for a moment that it was Grandpa's before hearing his mother's voice.
"Dad misses Grandpa, too." Mom took Eddie's hand and followed Dad. "Grandpa was detained on this island. It's so close to Alcatraz. You know, Al Capone lived there at the same time Grandpa slept here, in this very room."
"The islands are spitting distance apart," said Eddie, remembering a Grandpa term.
"Eddie, watch your language," said Mom. "Alcatraz is where criminals lived. It is a dangerous place. One should respect it."
Eddie knew about Alcatraz. When he was five, Grandpa took him to see the Birdman movie.
Eddie didn't remember much except for the Birdman's canary and how it wouldn't fly away until after the Birdman had died.
"How long did Grandpa stay?" asked Eddie.
"I'm not sure," said Mom. "Two weeks?"
"Two months," said Dad. Shifting Lizzie on his back, Dad scanned the doorways, as if looking for a clue in a treasure hunt.
"Two months," whispered Mom, "They kept him here for so long."
"It could have been worse," said Dad, his voice hoarse. "It could have been two years." He moved over to one of the poles and studied the base like he was scanning for a flaw, a crack.
"What are you looking for?" asked Mom.
"Pop's name. He told me he carved it. He was just a boy and he had the bottom bunk, so it would be down here. Funny, I don't see 'Wong' anywhere."
"That's not his real name," said Mom.
Dad stopped and looked at her as if she had just spoken Japanese.
"That last night before he died, he told me." She whispered in Dad's ear.
"No." His face whitened.
"I'm afraid so," said Mom. "We are not Kings. We never have been."
"There are no kings in China," said Eddie, fumbling in his pocket. "Do you want a handkerchief?"
"No." Dad left with Lizzie on his back. Mom followed.
Left behind, Eddie touched the pillar that had demanded his father's attention. The yellow paint felt brittle like a lizard's skin ready to be shed. He wondered if Grandpa's real name was anything like Neil Legstrong. He wondered if Grandpa had actually seen Al Capone because Alcatraz was in spitting distance of Angel Island. He wondered if Grandpa had flown his Tiger plane above this building that held him captive for two long months. A breeze blew the door against the frame outside and ruffled Eddie's bangs. The smell of incense and peppermints wafted in the air.
Standing in the doorway, Eddie stared at the single muddy step leading from the barracks to the outside. He looked up to the graying sky, where Neil Armstrong had flown, and he thought he saw a yellow speck winging towards the rising moon, where Grandpa, dapper in his three-piece suit, was visiting Grandma.
"Well, what are you waiting for?"
Eddie closed his eyes, lifted his bound foot and leapt.