Johnny America


My Sis­ter, Part One


My lit­tle sis­ter was a big pain in my ass. She had smart-mouthed friends — lip­py, spoiled and over-con­fi­dent — they egged her on. They coaxed her to de­stroy me.

Fiendish bitch­es.

My sis­ter had on­ly one de­mure friend (the rest were loud bo­hemi­ans), a Ko­re­an girl named Bet­sy who had a small mole in the mid­dle of her fore­head, where women from In­dia put the red dot. Bet­sy had just ar­rived from Ko­rea. Her dad made some mon­ey over there in the ken­nel-to-kitchen busi­ness, and re­cent­ly moved in­to a swank, white shag-car­pet­ed house on Up­per Bay Drive.

By then, in Texas, the dad had found an­oth­er busi­ness. They had col­or TV, white fur­ni­ture, plen­ty of brit­tle ori­en­tal art, and per­plex­ing, funky smells in the kitchen. Betsy’s moth­er, be­ing Ko­re­an and own­ing some fine Amer­i­can rug, asked that guests re­move their shoes at the front door be­fore en­ter­ing her metic­u­lous home. She had lit­tle black and gold slip­pers wait­ing for you. It’s the way in Ko­rea, and much of Asia. This pissed my sis­ter off.


DIVERGENCE: Piss­ing My Sis­ter Off

Any­thing about her ap­pear­ance, even com­pli­ments. Any­thing about pol­i­tics, or dri­ving a car. Art. Love. Car­toons. Pork and Beans. Yan­ni. Nev­er men­tion any­thing about how to build, rig, main­tain or sail a boat. Nev­er bring up nav­i­gat­ing by the stars. Don’t be pur­pose­ful­ly vague or ob­tuse. “What does that mean?” is one out of every twen­ty sen­tences my sis­ter ut­ters. “Oblig­a­tion” (tremors). “Re­lax” (steam). “Thin skin” (smoke). “For­get about it” (kraka­toa!). Any slights to­wards Jack Nichol­son (she loves him). And any­thing mean to­wards a mem­ber of her fam­i­ly or any of her friends.



My sis­ter ap­par­ent­ly on­ly ex­empt­ed Ko­re­ans from her fo­cused sense of loy­al­ty, and ex­clu­sive­ly Bet­sy. In the thir­ty-odd years since that time, to my knowl­edge, my sis­ter has shunned all Asians. Which isn’t easy, as she loves sushi.

Bet­sy was a math whiz. A fuck­ing aba­cus. She could beat Jack at Jack In The Box with the to­tal, in­clud­ing tax and ex­tra “spe­cial sauce”. Bet­sy was kind, re­spon­si­ble and re­spect­ful of el­ders; she got good grades and did well in sports. She was game for any­thing de­cent and smart. There’s no way that Betsy’s moth­er could have liked my sis­ter. But, she was new in Amer­i­ca, and was go­ing to have to live with these round-eyed whores: “HARROOO! HOW ARE YOU? PRETTY THE HAIRS! BETSY! BETSY! FRIEND IS HERE! HARROO! BETSY! THE FRIEND! COME NOW! Please take off shoe. Here I have slip­per.” And she point­ed gracefully.

Bet­sy caught all the fall­out from these episodes. My sis­ter seethed for hours from the con­de­scen­sion she en­dured from Betsy’s moth­er. But Bet­sy looked and act­ed noth­ing like her blank, lac­quered moth­er: Bet­sy was tall and lithe, glow­ing, laugh­ing, with beau­ti­ful al­mond eyes and the dot. When Bet­sy came to our house, my sis­ter would make her take off her shoes at the door, even though Bet­sy would be the on­ly one shoe­less. My sis­ter cooked hot dogs for Bet­sy, and toma­toes and onions boiled in but­ter with hand­fuls of salt. She made a raw for­eign­er lis­ten to Willie Nel­son. And then Bet­sy al­lowed my sis­ter to give her a hair­cut — in school, Bet­sy passed with­out much com­ment be­cause she was for­eign. My sis­ter knew this when she picked up the scis­sors. I say to this day that Bet­sy was the truest kind of friend.


The Mi­ni Bike

I’d been chip­ping away at my fa­ther for some time about him shelling out for a Benel­li mi­ni bike that I need­ed to ride. I’d made three 24-mile roundtrips to the mall, on my bi­cy­cle, to ex­am­ine and re­search the Benel­li, and now it was time for Dad to pony up.

My grades were good. I’d nev­er ask him for any­thing else, ever. I was chip­ping hard, and it was No­vem­ber. I felt good. And suc­cess was there in the garage on Christ­mas Day, fat-tired and metal­lic red. The speedome­ter went to six­ty. And now, decades af­ter statutes of lim­i­ta­tions have ex­pired, I con­fess that I took the Benel­li out on the five-lane free­way. More than once. Not al­ways alone. There’s noth­ing like the first youth­ful un­der­stand­ing of free­dom: “Ex­hil­a­ra­tion”, “ex­u­ber­ance”, “dizzy­ing”, “awesome”…all crit­i­cal re­views of that mo­ment on Broad­way. Benel­li was my gu­ru, I fol­lowed it everywhere.

It took about a week to get flu­ent with the ma­chine. By the sec­ond week, I was giv­ing rides. I had rid­den four of my friends at once, like a cir­cus troupe, at thir­ty miles an hour on a dirt road. I was speed­ing up and lean­ing in­to curves. I peeled out of the dri­ve­way and skid­ded in­to stops.

I got to know Travis, the red­neck at the gas sta­tion; six­ty miles to the gal­lon and a one gal­lon tank meant twice-dai­ly fill-ups — a dol­lar a fill in Texas in those days. I’d been to Katy (at night), and all the way out Old Tele­phone Road. Be­fore I was done, I’d make reg­u­lar runs to Galve­ston, with fish­ing poles, and a trash bag full of an­gelfish on the way home.

Even­tu­al­ly, I knew I’d have to ride my sis­ter, and her friends. I didn’t like then for my sis­ter to touch me: thank god there was a bar at the back of the seat. I showed her how to hold on. I had on­ly one hel­met — there were no such sen­si­ble laws at that time. I gave it to my sis­ter, as I’d planned for her a wild ride. Fire belched from the tailpipe as we leapt on­to the road. My sis­ter re­sist­ed every buck and slam, even wash­board dirt and brief air. She hung on to the bar and laughed in the wind. At the end of it, when my stom­ach hurt and my arms were life­less, she want­ed to go again.

“No,” I said. “Give me some­thing easy. Where’s Betsy?”

Bet­sy was read­ing a mono­graph by Ein­stein un­der a tree.

“Come on, Bet­sy! Your turn!”


Betsy’s Leg

Bet­sy came gam­bol­ing like a fawn. She’d been my sister’s friend for sev­er­al months and by now had en­dured dozens of hu­mil­i­a­tions, plen­ty of pranks. There had been bruis­es and ban­ish­ments, and bizarre “tests of friend­ship”, and Bet­sy kept com­ing back for more. Stu­pid lit­tle thing. On­ly a small part of it is in books. Bet­sy leapt around the Benel­li like a voodoo priest­ess, thrilled at be­ing in­vit­ed to ride. This pissed my sis­ter off. My sis­ter feared that Bet­sy would in­fect me with her own joy, there­fore I would give Bet­sy a bet­ter ride than I had giv­en my sister.

“All three of us can ride,” my sis­ter declared.

While there was cer­tain­ly room enough for three on the Benelli’s plush and ex­pan­sive cush­ion, the Benel­li had one se­ri­ous de­sign flaw: the fat, flashy chrome-blessed tailpipe. It be­came blaz­ing hot af­ter on­ly a few min­utes run­ning — I had the burns on my leg to prove it.

“No!” I shout­ed (the Benel­li al­ways roared). “Bet­sy might burn her leg!”

“I’m ready!” Bet­sy had the on­ly hel­met on. I revved the Benel­li in prepa­ra­tion for take-off.

“I’m get­ting on!” my sis­ter screamed.

“NO!” I shout­ed back.

“What’s go­ing on?” Bet­sy won­dered. My sis­ter pounced on­to the end of the sad­dle. The Benel­li shook, but stood. A hiss­ing sound, then a ter­ri­ble scream.

“My leg!” wailed Bet­sy, trapped be­tween broth­er and sis­ter, writhing like an eel. “My leg is burning!”


Betsy’s Moth­er

It was a se­ri­ous burn. Bed-rest, fevered hal­lu­ci­na­tions, an­tibi­otics, dress­ings and ex­pen­sive oint­ments — even a part-time nurse: a Ko­re­an tragedy. Betsy’s moth­er knew who was to blame for this. She wasn’t about to lose face to some smart-aleck, white dev­il-brat. She start­ed call­ing our house, de­mand­ing to speak with my fa­ther. My sis­ter picked up the first call, im­me­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized the voice on the oth­er end, lis­tened in for a bit, then sim­ply hung up. With­in sec­onds, the phone rang again. It rang unan­swered while my sis­ter ex­plained the situation:

“Its Betsy’s moth­er. She wants to talk to Dad.” Dad was out of town for a while.

“I’ll han­dle it”, I told my sis­ter. The phone hadn’t stopped ring­ing. Betsy’s moth­er was as tena­cious as an out­raged bar­na­cle when it came to mat­ters of per­son­al dig­ni­ty. Fi­nal­ly, af­ter forty rings, she gave up.

At 6.30 AM, the phone rang again. I picked it up. “MISSAKIN! MISSAKIN!”

“Hel­lo?” Peo­ple of­ten mis­took my speak­ing voice for my father’s.




“NO LIKE MASSAGE!” I shout­ed back in­to the receiver.


This sort of thing went on for sev­er­al days, with de­light­ful vari­a­tions. Over the phone, I dis­cov­ered that I could do a cred­i­ble im­per­son­ation of a black man:

“You sound like some fine kung pao, baby.”


We tape-record­ed the “I’m sor­ry but this num­ber has been dis­con­nect­ed…” mes­sage and played it end­less­ly to Betsy’s moth­er. She could hear our laugh­ter in the background.

Wal­ter Cronkite gave Betsy’s moth­er the news. She dis­cussed house­hold tra­vails with Flo­rence Hen­der­son, and en­joyed a num­ber by Son­ny and Cher. One night, as a fam­i­ly, we hummed an im­pas­sioned ren­di­tion of “Muskrat Love” in­to the re­ceiv­er. And my sib­lings and I felt clos­er then than ever be­fore, com­rades-in-arms, unit­ed against the Evil Em­pire that was Betsy’s mother.

Filed under Writer X's Sister on January 5th, 2004

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Reader Comments

Sharon wrote:

Hel­lo Tommy,
Bra­vo!! I see the sto­ry of Ka­to the Cater­er was not just an anom­aly… Part I was wild­ly en­ter­tain­ing. I’m look­ing for­ward to Part II and one more piece to un­der­stand­ing the puz­zle of the King family.

tj wrote:

hi there!
am new to this site and i was met by your well writ­ten sto­ry! thanks, i guess. it is rare to find writ­ers that for­get them­selves and just let go to en­ter­tain their readers!
ku­dos! hope the next chap­ter will be post­ed sooner!

LEG wrote:

Hey there – it’s my first time too and I just want­ed to say that you sound so much like a boy I loved when I was 16. Maybe it’s just be­cause I was think­ing of him to­day, but in any case, I feel bet­ter now. Gonna go have some green tea.

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