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THE DEAD DO NOT IMPROVE
Jay Caspian Kang
The Baby Molester and I talked only twice. Both times, she came knocking on my door. The first time, she asked for four eggs. I remember being amused by the anachronism -what sort of person still asks her neighbor for eggs? Until I realized it had been years since I'd had a single egg in my refrigerator, much less two.
The second time she knocked, it was well past midnight on some blown-out Tuesday. I was clicking through Craigslist w4m's, my head swimming in a desperate, almost haiku-like fog, "oh my loneliness / it rolls through the foggy bay / here it comes. Again!" When I heard the knock, I hurried to the door, anticipating some new girl, the sort of beautiful girl who, when her hair is wet from the rain, looks more like a planet than a girl. But it was just the Baby Molester in a peach slip. And one limpening sock. The light from an earth-friendly bulb cut through that electric hair, exposing a fragile, mottled quail egg of a skull. A look somewhere close to smugness hovered over her shiny face, as if she held some secret. She asked for a cigarette and, after an awkward pause, asked for two. She had a guest, she explained. I gave her five and really considered asking her some questions, but did not.
It was Kathleen who came up with the name Baby Molester. This was three years ago, at a concert in Golden Gate Park. I had just moved to San Francisco from New York. Staring down at the mass of dank heads, I asked Kathleen, "Who knew an entire city could be filled with ugly white people?" She said, "Calm down. This is a bluegrass festival." On a dirt patch by the stage, this old hippie was stomping up a cloud of dust. A puff of wizard's hair floated behind her head -luminous, frizzed out by a personal electric field. Two young girls danced at her feet, clapping like drunken seals. A woman, hopefully the mother, hovered nearby, forcing the sort of smile that is forced more in San Francisco than anywhere else in this country.
Later, at a dustier, abandoned stage, we saw her again. This time she was dancing with someone else's little boy. His red beret stayed on his head by some miracle of centrifugal force. His chubby, inscrutable face was contorted into the look of a young child who is contemplating whether to cry -the wide-open eyes, the twittering chin designed to stop even the most militant of spinster armies. Kathleen murmured, "There are so many reasons why a woman that age would feel the need to molest other people's babies." After a pause, she added, "And each one of them is heartbreaking." I murmured my agreement, said something devastating about the failure of the sixties, and spent the rest of the night feeling superior to the entire state of California.
Two weeks later, when I moved into my own apartment, the Baby Molester was sitting on the stoop. I called Kathleen and marveled at the smallness of the city. She said, "Yeah, it's a small city. But all cities are small, you know? "
I tried to not hate her for saying something so stupid. But, you know.
I confess: I slept through the whole thing. Through the gunshots, the police sirens, the ambulance, the detective who might have knocked on my door, the hushed discussions of the neighbors. And since there was no real reason to leave the apartment the next day, I did not witness any of the police tape or the shattered glass or the crime reporters or the wary gang members walking up and down the street just to make sure.
I learned about the death of the Baby Molester because I was bored and Googling myself. I had found nothing but the same shit I always find a five-hundred-word essay I had written for a now-defunct blog about how Illmatic had helped me grieve for my dead parents (number 14 in search), a published excerpt of my ultimately unpublished novel (number 183 in search), a pixelated photo of me, fatter, reading at a bar in Brooklyn (number 2 in image search). I expanded my search. I was once again humiliated to know that my version of "Philip Kim" could elicit nothing more than those three flags stuck in the landscape of all the other Philip Kims of the world. Desperate (again) to find something else, I added my address into the search with a litany of hopefully descriptive keywords: ASIAN, THIN, ATHLETIC, LONG-HA IRED, BROODING, CHEEK BONES.
My hope was that some girl might have watched me lean up against a tree or maybe light a cigarette or pet an agreeable dog or frown over a burnt cup of coffee or an overfrothed cappuccino and maybe she might have caught my eye and maybe she might have decided to post something cute and short in "Missed Encounters" or some forum like that, on the decent chance that I might, in fact, be trolling the Internet for her.
When I narrowed the search by Googling my cross-streets, a link appeared to a story in the Chronicle's crime blog: woman slain in mission district. The details were sparethe location, the age of the victim, the adjective "elderly."
I knew it was her. Our block is short and lined with lime trees, and every other old lady I've seen walking around is Mexican.
After some deliberation, I called Kathleen. She sounded weary and practical, and although it had been over a year since we had spoken last, she politely consoled me over the murder of my neighbor, citing statistics, the fragility of our lives. One day, you take the 31 to Golden Gate Park to dance with the children of people who see you as nothing but a testament to the exhausting reality of idealism. Sometime later, an illegal immigrant fires a gun on your street, and the bullet, by force of infinitesimal chance, or God, shatters your sole window and, deflected slightly by the impact, travels exactly to the spot where you have decided to put your head for the night.
She said, "Crazier things happen all the time. You know? " I said, "That's retarded."
She said, "What? " "You're being retarded."
"Why do you even care so much? You told me you talked to her twice."
"Why don't you care? "
"Because it's senseless and insane to worry about stray bullets. Think of the odds."
"Well, I have to care about it. I don't have your luxury." "What? "
"She lived next door to me." She snorted.
A cautious distance colors us all banal. At least that's the tendency. I said someone was waiting for me and hung up the phone.
After twenty, thirty minutes on the couch, I was over it. I put on my pants and left the apartment.
Outside, the only remaining evidence was a shattered windowpane and a sagging, trampled perimeter of police tape. Someone had smeared a pinkish substance on the white slatting that framed the window. Upon closer inspection, the pink stuff appeared to be lipstick.
Across the street, a young couple stared woefully at the crime scene. They lived in one of the gentrifier condos. The guy was always making an effort to talk to the block 's indigenous Mexicans. In two years, neither the guy nor the girl had ever said a word to me because their safety was not compromised by my presence. The girl was the sort of girl who looks best in jeans and a performance fleece. She had an extraordinary ass. The man owned, but rarely rode, a turquoise Vespa.
When he saw me walking down the steps to the sidewalk, the guy shrugged, but with meaning. Because I am a bit of a coward, I shook my head, approximating his meaning. My way of saying, "It's a damn shame." To those people.