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Family Snapshots

Dance loves it when he’s asked about cooking from the old country. He drags Drin to Korean grocery stores and shows him bottles of peculiar pickles and bins of even odder vegetables, he offers charming translations of the hangeul on labels. Likewise, he asks Drin for translations of Spanish labels, asking how things are used, laughing about how many varieties of olives there are.

They both find it harder to talk about other things, to poke about in one another’s history. Drin has watched Dance and Emma veer away from asking each other such questions as if it’s become a habit, in spite of Emma’s normally insatiable curiosity.

Sometimes ordinary life intrudes anyway. When Bud Innes brings Korean businessmen to evenings at the Metro, Dance responds eagerly to their questions, translating with what appears to be a careful scholarly accent and great courtesy. There are rapid bows. To them, he claims politely that he’s just a simple musician and he hasn’t kept up well enough to speculate about the politics, the arts and music scene, the business statistics, or the status of relations with the North. He asks their opinions to better inform himself, nodding, only pausing to apprise Bud of what he’s being told, using very careful phrasing.

swing singer Max Raabe in suit, next to fence
Even in old pictures, Bud is the skeptic

Afterward, in private, he will offer Bud Innes a raking summary of the guest that’s worthy of the most dour of the field auditors Bud employs. That makes Bud grin, and thank him.

He also warns Bud that all those guests may view Dance disapprovingly as a sloppy-mouthed American boy of low blood who is far too effeminate to employ in proper business operations. The swishy hand gestures and prissy faces which illustrate this point make Bud roar with laughter.

“So that’s why we really truly belong not there,” Dance says, and he shrugs, as if it doesn’t matter. Never mind that the odd plangent note in his voice will show up in his violin solos, like an echo, for a week afterward.

Bud shares a thoughtful look with Emma for that, and then with Drin, but he just nods and thanks Dance. After, he always sends Dance and Emma a gift basket, things like fresh fruit or smoked meats or preserves, with a nice card.

Even discussing the weather overseas is too painful sometimes. Emma will comment, now and then, on the monsoons coming off the Sea of Japan. The weather back home provokes Dance to mutter phrases that he’s never translated for any of them. Challenged on this, he laughs at Drin.

“Yucky frozen dog snot! Yucky dripping piggy sweat! Yucky air quality, they are always smoking like chimneys, making horrible stink!” he says, and cracks up at Drin’s startled expression.

“But pigs don’t sweat effectively, that’s why they need wallows to cool off in hot weather,” Emma objects.  “The phrase ‘sweat like a pig’ actually comes from the iron smelting process–”

Drin just starts to smile.  Dance is already chuckling at her.

Emma huffs, and admits she is guilty of teaching him such questionable phrases. He sounds absurdly like the Midwestern exiles at the Metro, the ones who really weren’t sorry to leave either the ice or the humidity.

“Yuck! Horrible! No more, I am so lucky!” Dance exclaims, waving his hands, and laughing.

boy in trad Korean costume walking on sand
In Costume

Jokes and folktales and history about his family are okay, though. Ask Dance about his family when he was a kid back in Korea, and he smiles and tells stories. As long as it’s older family history, Dance is as open and pleased to talk about all of them as anyone could ask for. He’s perfectly happy to drag out his battered old shoebox of print pictures, and talk excitedly about his grandmother-teacher, and his parents and aunts and uncles who work for various American military supply contractors, and the cousins, and their children.

Dance notes wryly that the rest of the family are all much paler than he is, too, some of his cousins called him and his mother very bad names. At college, there was jealousy about him winning the music prize instead of other family members who looked ‘nicer’. Drin assures him, rather fiercely, that he loves the color of Dance’s skin just as it is, and hugs him quite hard.

“Only son is big job,” he says, leaning into Drin’s legs, and glancing up from piles on the floor, with an awkward grimace.

boy in red shirt playing violin

In traditional Korean terms, he’s been good in one sense–going off and getting a job in America–but not one that pays well. Then he announced he was queer just before he left; he admits he was pushed stupidly into it, taunted by those same insulting cousins. And then he hurt them with the name-change here in America, so their patrimony is gone. Never mind that he says that he’s done it to avoid bringing shame to the family.

Drin has read online blogs about the culture, about how parents adjust to queer children, and he asks about it.

Dance says he’s spoken to other immigrants, he knows of other Korean families who do handle the adjustment to a gay son with grace, or with sadness, or with resigned humor.

The problem, he explains, is that it requires them to talk about even more basic things first. On personal topics, it seems the honored parents become suddenly, and formidably, traditional. Dance says he isn’t holding his breath that their opinion of him and his gay partner might change. It might, normally, if the honored parents had long enough to calm down.

But not after the shocking package about the murders of girls in Moldova.  His parents aren’t going to overcome their fright at gruesome pictures.  His Grandmother-teacher admits that nobody questioned why his parents received a big box of murder scene pictures.  There were autopsy copies in Slavic languages, with pictures of dead women.  There are images recovered from cameras left at the scenes, showing a man who looks very like him, but not quite.  His facial scars are angled differently.  Dance’s piano teacher knows he isn’t the man in those pictures, but the others in the family are too shocked.  Nobody will talk about it, nobody will listen to her.

His parents could understand Dance is innocent if they ever looked at his mail packages to them. Dance got a Metro Symphony DVD copied over into the correct regional zone for them. He was recorded performing at the Metro on some of the evenings that Moldovan prostitutes died in East Germany, according to those dates listed in the few English-translated documents that Dance received.

He wonders if someone throws away his mailings unopened, in outrage.  He’s got no response from his teacher when he asks if his parents got the package, if they ever watched the DVD.  Then he changes the subject, wiping one hand at an invisible chalkboard to make his point, and he asks instead about Drin’s family.

Drin replies that he himself was lucky, growing up in a large family with plenty of outrageous eccentrics.  It gave him a sense of perspective, at least, but of course his parents freaked out even worse for the knowledge of how truly weird things could get.

bearded man in boots and sweater on rocks
climbing down

They were right, of course. It got weird, some of his military hitches he doesn’t remember too well, and probably better that way. It didn’t go well, he went hungry and took stupid risks and survived in places nobody had business to be. It’s a tossup, to him, if the Army’s rituals save more young fools than they kill.

A few weeks after Dance brought him home to Emma’s little house, he helped Dance dig new holes in its crowded garden. That afternoon taught him how strong his lover really is. How fast he decides his actions, too; Dance’s saws and loppers cut wood as fast as his kitchen paring knives chop vegetables. The man never stops moving.

Standing in the shower together afterward, tired out, stroking that amazing body under the soap and the hot water, he asked Dance more of the details on choosing his new American name.

“Tell me again,” Drin asked in the shower after washing off the sweat and dirt of the garden, quiet and calm, picking up the new shampoo he’s brought over, “why did you stick with it, once you invented it? Dance of Knives. One helluva name, that is.”

He’s not sure Dance will tell him at first. Dance looks away. After a moment, he writes in hangeul on the fogged glass of the shower door, and gives it a wry, considering look. “So old-timey, my parents, they write downward my old name, Ahn Ha Neol.  In English, we put surname last, we write it out Hanul Ahn.  I tell Bud’s guests that I am a Gwangju Ahn, my clan, so I do not embarrass the family, but I am in the Sunheung Ahn.  Nobody prints hangeul down any more,” he says.

Then he writes a shorter name, horizontally.


He says it, slowly, and lets Drin repeat it a few times: “In Korean, I say it Gummu, like gum and moo.  Yes, the cow noise little kids make.”

But Drin waits, watching Dance with one brow lifted.

Dance sighs, waves his hands.  “Well, that name in Korean, really it is Sword Dance or Dancing Swords, not really Dance Of Knives.  I tell you true.  That is the best choice to sound okay.”

“Like this?” Drin says, and he copies both sets of script in large careful fog-dripping marks on the neighboring pane of glass, saying the names.  “So if I am visiting in Seoul, I ask for you with these names.”

“Yes,” Dance says, and takes Drin’s hand in a sudden fierce grip.

“Hey, some day,” Drin says, and smiles.

Dance nods, kisses Drin’s knuckles, and stands back, leaning his head back into the tiles.  He watches Drin while the bigger man rubs shampoo into short gray hair. It smells of lavender, and Dance’s nostrils flare wide. It’s hardly fair. Drin already knows how his musician loves the scent of it. He smiles, and bends a little for Dance, who can’t resist taking over.

Dance massages the shampoo over the older man’s head, spreading his fingers wide and trailing down Drin’s neck muscles, and into his shoulder joints. Dance is frowning a bit. Distracted by what his hands are telling him, Dance tells him in scattered bits, explaining who he used to be.

Drin makes noises of understanding as he listens. When he washes Dance’s hair, in turn, he can’t resist smiling at the glossy hair sweeping through his hands. He’s going to miss it, once it’s cut, even if Dance is fed up with tending to it. Dance made an appointment with Drin’s barber, asking Drin to come along and help him stay calm about being touched. He will do fine; earlier that week Dance stood perfectly still for his first real fitting with Drin’s tailor, as promised; a man of his word, and proud of it.

That kind of pride may look like an absurd luxury back in Korea. Drin isn’t sure about the rest of the man’s family yet, even after all the research he’s done on their background. He knows a little about the relatively few Korean surnames being shared among so many people. He knows the given names are two symbols, one of them usually a generational choice shared among those born at the same time with the same family name.

That leaves a lone little symbol, often one little sound, among all of the sounds of one’s name, for one’s personal character. A traditional, dignified, reasonable order of priorities, in any culture where working together will keep you alive, and where art is always a job in the service of power.

Dance nods, naked and brown and silky, and the grip of his hand tightens. It makes Drin think of tigers.

The surname is what matters to older folks, he says. “The name Ahn,” Dance says dryly, “means ‘tranquillity.'”

Drin blinks at him. “Ironic, under the circumstances.”

Dance glances up under those black brows, and he says, with all the crispness of speaking in large rehearsal spaces at work, that the Ahns have a history of being a high-brow bunch. A pale, aristocratic, indoor bunch, certainly not his own peasant-brown skin tone. People have asked him sharp, rude questions about his right to the name. Dryly he assures Drin that wearing fancy Hollywood sunglasses and claiming he spends too much time in swimming pools would not help him.

He says he belongs to the largest clan within the larger surname, a high-status clan associated with a city that now has a sheet-metal fabrication plant, providing parts to the military. His parents live in another city, holding down jobs with military contractors. Good jobs, but still well beneath their proven capacities in the past.

They make up for that on their own time. This is all in the grand tradition of self-educated Westernized people who don’t have to limit their identities to their public occupations. So their son was always special. Unlike traditional parents, they treated him as differently as they could from other little kids, they encouraged the stubborn little guy’s independence.

Partly, they had to. His capacity in music showed up early and hard. He says they gave him the music lessons he begged for, the Mozart and the Bach he loved hearing on the radio–while they were still insisting, in some kind of masculine pride, that he must have the martial arts too, even if it risked damaging his ability to play serious music. He wanted to do that, also, especially since his first name was such a girly name.  He got in fights.  He remembers his mom and aunts saying they loved putting him into martial arts classes because it ran off some of his extra energy.

Drin groans, which makes Dance laugh.

Then Dance sobers, and explains that his teachers forced a confrontation with him, and with his parents. The two pursuits were incompatible, they said. His parents refused to think it was a problem until it involved everyone in the family.  But his teachers made Dance understand his family was facing a choice as big as any a kid ever knows. The teachers said to him there was a limit to riding the two skills, he must decide.

Dance’s voice can be dry as any sub-Saharan desert, when he wants. Drin pities the parents who had to face up to that skeptical eye, from that kid, looking at them in disbelief.

Dance chose music, against the wishes of his father and uncles and senior men in the family. His father angrily forbid him from ever returning to his old kuk sul won school or the teachers there.

In America, on his own, he went to a Japanese dojo close by the house, rather than go across town to the Korean school well-known to the community. Then he told his Grandmother-teacher what he’d done, and explained how much it helped him, how much he liked it. She was horrified–that meant he was risking his hard-won music career on injuries, and he was doing it with Japanese help, another insult to traditional Korean parents.  She told him not to tell anyone else–it was yet another outrage added to those wild American ways which upset his parents so badly.

Dance is baffled, too. Is any of that on the same scale as allowing him to be accused of murder?

Dance has been lucky so far, when he keeps on risking injury to his arms and his hands and his fingers, and he knows it. The dojo makes quite different demands on the body than his music does. Much as Dance loves to lounge in the water, he can’t even linger too long in the pool or the hot tub or the sauna, for fear of softening all those string-player’s callouses too far.

“Why was your old name girly?” Drin asks, rinsing soap out of his lover’s hair.  His outrageously long black hair.

“Ha Neul,” Dance says, “means sky.  It is a simple name, not from Chinese, more like girls use.”

But they never called him that as a kid.

In traditional places, kids have nicknames to deflect evil spirits. Like Yiddish, never brag on your kid with a pretty name. Use a nickname, the nastier the better, to hide them from ill-wishing and bad luck.

The rude nickname he was given as a rowdy little boy was not like other kids either. He scribbled drawings on the walls as a toddler, persistently and stubbornly, and they called him a dancheongjang, which is a traditional painter of roofs. The root word, dancheong, is the Korean art of “painting roofs that fly to the sky.” More literally, the word meant cinnabar and blue-green, from some of the colors they use, he says, smiling.

painted roof of Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Korea
Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Korea

Asked if he ever had any art classes, Dance just shrugs.  No one ever thought to give him lessons or books on painting or drawing.  He did that kind of thing on his own, as a teenager, back when he kept binders of his drawings hidden away.

“Drawing men like this,” he said, brushing his hand along Drin’s wet beard, smoothing down Drin’s chest. “Big men who laugh, long curly hair, big beards. You must laugh if you saw my drawings. Lumberjack beards. Freckles, no. Only here, when we– when I see them, I find out I have this weakness for freckles.” He sighs. “After I win the competition for America, someone stole my binders.”

“Oh no,” Drin murmurs, alarmed.

“Oh yes.  They take my binders to my father, big family fight. After that, I feel sad, pathetic, always drawing these big heroic laughing men on tiny papers to hide it. I work very hard instead, I won the first chair here, I must work hard to stay.  To me, the Metro all looks the same as my family. There could be sneaking tricks on me, so I give out nothing. Now I have no drawings of fairytale princes or cowboys or mountain men, I am not at clubs unless I am playing music, no wasting time with gossip boys, but also no hiding. I am not being tiny to anyone, not for anything.”

Drin has been getting an idea what “stubborn” means, in Dance’s life.

Dance doesn’t argue with Our Emma, for instance. He doesn’t fuss. He just shrugs and he does what he said he would do all along, and he doesn’t bother to flinch when she whacks him for it. You have to be stubborn, to live with The Emma of Doom.

“You…” he smiles slowly.  “You are bigger than any drawing dream I ever do.  So big!”  His fingers spread wide with a snap, flinging wet droplets at the ceiling.

Drin looks up and watches the drops fall again onto them, wipes his eyes with a grin.  “When you were little, what did you draw on the walls?” Drin asks, delighted.

“Dragons and phoenixes and Garuda birds and unicorns and eagles and jet planes and dragonflies and helicopters,” Dance holds up one hand, the long fingers angled like a wing. “Or so our grandmother-teacher says, but she might have been telling stories about scribbles, too. She says that’s what we are telling her, anyway.”

“I like your Grandmother,” Drin says.

Dance grins.

“Will you draw me some dragons? Or eagles?” Drin asks, and even he hears the hesitant catch in his voice. He’s seen some doodling that promises interesting things.

Dance laughs hard, a full-bellied laugh. “Oh yes, we will! We– I will– I’ll paint you some right on the wall! For my dragon king, yes, I will make you a great big laughing Chinese dragon to ride, with a silly horse face, and whiskers!”

“Dancheongjang,” Drin says, badly, and Dance laughs.

ceiling of entrance gate for Wolijeongsa temple in Korea
Painted roofs

Dance says Emma is the only one who can say it right, and she’s reclaimed it from the parents who still won’t talk to him.

He admits that Amalia came up with “Dance” in English from that childhood nickname, but Emma made it her own, choosing it again for him. It was Emma who claimed him under his new name, who put him in this house, gave him his garden, gave him a new shape.

In the “Months of Being Alone,” she yelled at him a lot, poked him, she actually knocked him down and sat on him in the living room, and kept yelling his new stage name at him, until it was the only name he could respond to. Making him get up, poking him to go to work, and weeping with rage when he wouldn’t play for her, until he gave in–less trouble–and started practicing at home again.

“Your music is yours,” she screamed at him. “It’s not theirs. Never was. I won’t let them take it away from you!” He says it with a wry glance, handing over a towel, warning Drin how severe she can be, and Drin can’t resist hugging him.

Dance kisses his cheek, and breathes on his ear, murmuring in pleasure. He says that he won’t even turn his head if addressed by the old name, any more. It’s broken off somewhere in there, old history.

Emma’s tried it, he says. He says he won’t mind if Drin surprises him, calling that name, to check for himself. Generous, as always, he offers Drin the consent to do so first, not waiting for Drin to ask. He shrugs, waves his hand. Why not?

Amalia often called him Dance, for short, his very first month in the country, when she was in a hurry.

Dance of Knives, Emma repeated one evening in the kitchen, laughing at the flying slices of potato–not carrot, for once– when he was angry. Then more often, because he got angry a lot toward the end of that last month. Emma agreed. She said that was healthy, to get mad. He should do something about it. Act on that mad.

He did, when he was angry enough to submit to the process, to complete it at last.

He explains. The lawyer, to act as an advocate, to wade through the paperwork that seemed enough to dizzy anyone, much more for someone whose native language wasn’t English. The fees: for the lawyer, for the filing, for the legal notices in the newspapers. It ran to nearly a thousand dollars by the time it was over. And the questions, on the forms and from the judge: Are you avoiding debt collection? Are you being sought by state or federal police for questioning? Do you have any outstanding warrants?

It seemed that very few people sought to change their names to salvage the honor of their families. Even fewer were allowed to do it midway in their immigration process, something he hadn’t known when he started it.  Explaining contracts under stage names does not impress the INS.  But then the INS agent in charge got some odd letter from some mysterious American military unit, a note which they waved at him briefly, suddenly the INS officers decided to let it go through.

Drin is left wondering what their interest might have been.

But Dance of Knives it was, when he got angry enough to become a new person. It was the only name he had left.

“You know that dojo saying, ‘Never bring a sword to a gunfight?'” he says wryly. “Well, I am always standing there with a crummy little knife. Duhhh.” He waves his fist around so foolishly that Drin starts to laugh, and kisses him. “And why no gun, you say? Well, back in my old country, we cannot own weapons without permits, you know. We are such angry people, we must be afraid of our own kitchens. We cannot even own something the size of your gift, that wonderful chef’s knife, without getting a permit!”

“So you just learned how to take big weapons away from silly Americans, huh?” Practicing with Dance at the dojo is always thought-provoking.

Dance adds dryly that, as an artsy stage name that gets attention at the Metro, it’s served him well. Emma makes sure that people at charity events use that name.

Drin says the original childish Korean nickname sometimes now, in bed. He asked Emma to drill him on how to say it, how to get it right. Dancheongjang. It always makes Dance react in ways that make Drin lose his breath.

Drin glances up at the dragon that fills the living room wall over the tv, the only wall space left open in the room.

It is a very Chinese-looking dragon, one in a fairly late Ming-era mood, a clown with a sense of humor, rolling around at play in the clouds.

Drin bought the paints that Dance asked for, amazed at how cheap it all was. Dance used stencil techniques, and in just one afternoon, humming bits of the Yellow River Suite, he pounced out gray and bluish clouds on the plain landlord paint with his crude little sponge-tipped stick.

Most of it is just an outline of darker cloud, but he showed a frolicking foot grasping a bluish pearl, and a laughing horsey face peering out of a gap, with just a hint of the eye and one horn, and the alligator snout with the whiskers, the tongue lolling wide as it laughs.

It’s not so much amazing that Dance has this kind of art too inside him, as the fact that he knows what to leave out, as instinctive as rests in his music.

Chinese hand scroll painting of dragons

Drin looks down from the dragon. The man who painted it is flipping through pictures of the people who won’t call him back, who won’t let him speak to their children, who won’t have him visit if he ever returns.

Drin shifts his foot and gives Dance a leg-hug, and sees the cheekbones rise in a hidden smile.

Feral cat, Drin reminds himself daily. He sets things neatly on the couch beside him, in the same order Dance keeps them. His knees provide a rest for Dance’s head, and his shins, back support, in a rare time of leisure.

The photo box should have made them both happy. Dance’s pictures and the stories should be making him laugh, but it’s a struggle.  He hears it, how Dance’s family treats the man like a ghost, ignoring his calls. Dance hasn’t spoken to a single live person in the weeks that Drin has been around to notice, and this doesn’t seem to surprise Dance at all.

Dance has got up at all hours, just wanting to talk to a live person in his own language. He has been making an extra effort, because of his news about his partner now. Dance says he wants to tell his parents about Drin. He’s so happy, he wants them to be happy about it too.

Maybe he knows they won’t be, though. He admits that nobody has been responding to his emails about it.

Even self-sufficient guys who remind Drin of a cat like to talk to their family sometimes. He knows Dance has been calling them, leaving messages for those few people related to Grandmother, as she’s brought them to the phone to leave him messages. Never directly. Just voices, whispering hastily in Korean, things which translate as Christian prayers for his soul, responses far too brief to comfort him.

Grandmother never calls him when he’s home to answer, but she gives him messages. Those help. Happy short messages, reassuring ones that she came through her operation okay. More details come in scattered in her emails, forwarded bits and pieces from the others, randomly, not in direct responses to anything Dance tells them, as if they never hear him. This seems to be how they’ve always communicated.

Drin says, “And what do you call this month?”

Dance just smiles all across his face. “The Month of Eating Too Much,” he says, as if there could be such a thing in his world, and he cracks up, smacking Drin on the shin.

“You know what I call it?”

“What?” Dance says, eyes alight, leaning into him.

“The Month of Jogging Too Much,” and Drin smacks him back, on the shoulder.

Dance falls back between his knees, head on Drin’s thigh, and rubs his face on Drin’s legs. “It’s working, too.”

“It is,” Drin agrees, making a wry face, and Dance makes a rude humpy gesture with his hips.

Drin says, “The Month of Too Much of Doing That?”

“Never!” Dance cracks up again, both hands hugging Drin’s left thigh.

Drin knows that’s not true, though. There’s days that Dance still reminds him of a neglected dog, wildly over-excited by the slightest bit of kindness or touch. Drin scales back his natural impulses sometimes, knowing Dance isn’t used to getting so much time and direct, unblinking interest. Or demands. Drin feels himself wanting to grasp the essence of water, and telling himself to knock it off is an on-going mantra.

Japanese actor Shun Oguri with long hair
listening for that call

It may be almost too much for Dance. He tries to let Dance come up to him, let him choose what distance he wants.

It’s surprising how often he turns to find his musician busy doing something else in the same room. I meant to be here anyway.

Drin finds himself smiling–until he sees the secrets in Dance’s box of photos.

Drin leafs gently through the faded, cracked old snapshots, learning what they mean to Dance. The photos themselves are problematic. These are pictures that clearly and simply belong to a much older man. They come of a different age. Older than Drin himself, even.

The rest of Dance’s generation all had their baby pictures taken with video cameras, cheap digital boxes, disposable film cameras, even in the most traditional villages back in Korea.

Not Dance. Dance is too young to have childhood Polaroids, Ektachrome and Kodachrome prints of him performing at recitals. Yet here they are, with negatives dated in blocky-looking vertical hangeul script. He’s too young to have such prints in an age of cheap digital knockoffs all over Asia.  His box is all crumbly paper packets with strips of negative film in them, heavy thick old paper prints that have aged strenuously, thick emulsion coatings curled and cracked.

Drin is sure the dates will be nonsense. Not all the negatives match, either. The man doesn’t have prints for half of what’s there on the negs.

Drin makes no remark on it. He’s careful not to make any fuss, but there are monsters buried among the bits of orangey aging film. These things belong somewhere else, back in that nightmare place where bugs with too many claws are firing lasers. That place has no relation at all to the world where thousands of cheap digital cameras got sold in Korea in the year Dance’s birth certificate says he was born.

There are dim, underexposed objects recorded on some of the old negatives. The lighter edges in the negatives show outlines of industrial gear, coils, compressers, heat exchangers, large pressurized sand-tanks like those used as sewage filters.

He barely glances over the one industrial strip that is continuous. There’s a sequence of shots approaching large light-colored boxes with thick walls. The prints would show them as dark, of course, and Drin’s memory supplies the flat green color.

Boxes out of bad dreams, imprinted into his brain like bad x-ray imaging.

He cannot look at that strip twice, not without losing control of his breathing and alerting Dance, and he really doesn’t want his musician seeing the actinic shrieking gaps in his own life.

Two pale boxes, two blobs of black faces, with pale tubing underneath their chins, and thin pale lines running up to their noses.

There are more lines, cryptic outlines. But he knows. Drin knows those are metal tongs bracing their skulls in place, with half the padding fallen off. Frozen metal, exposed, that leaves short scar lines on either side of the face–if they lived.  There’s pictures of dead things thawed from the boxes. The same kind of boxes that usually hatch out the bugs and the crab-armed things Dance fears, the same bug-soldiers found in his own nightmares. Boxes hold dead things in Emma’s bad dreams. She had a lot of names, too.


Two of the brown bodies, side by side in their boxes, each caught frozen, mid-struggle. Both dark underexposed blobs have the same distinctive silhouette. One picture has an outline as simple as a Roman coin—with the same profile that he sees right now.

The best revenge, Drin thinks, and in some grim secret place in his soul he is angry. Outlive the bastards.

It has the dark ringing echo he hears in his own voice from nightmares.

He looks at the negatives, checking for handwriting, for labeling on the photo packets, on the backs of pictures. Besides numbers, he finds a few odd vertical scribbles of hangeul symbols in fading ink, to be captured and translated later.

Carefully, gently, he looks over each printed or Polaroid paper picture, glances through the negatives, nodding as he listens, and he strokes Dance’s hair or his shoulder now and then, not too much.

In family pictures, the clothes are of another age, styles that are utterly fifties.  Dance’s parents look content, laughing a little, hugging a kid who’s all kneebones and elbows, big wide mouth laughing. The grin looks like Dance when he laughs. But there’s a missing lower bicuspid, and the kid’s incisors have chips that Dance doesn’t have. He’s pretty sure the kid isn’t Dance. Never was.  He wonders if those teeth would match that of the guy in the Moldovan murder scenes.

Then he stares at a photo of Dance’s mother visiting one of the many uncles at his work.

Drin is forced to take a deep breath, shocked. He recognizes the company sign hanging behind their heads, the hangeul shapes in their logo. He knows that company all too well. The company is infamous for complicity in fraud, for failure to respond timely in audits, for a very confident contempt about notices of violations, a contempt for anyone trying to enforce contract rules. No one in that country ever questions their word so rudely. The executives don’t even bother to buy off local law enforcement, their mere name is enough to bully local code enforcement and health inspectors to silence. Plenty of others will buy their products if American agencies are too proud.

Outlive the bastards, his angry dream-self repeats, growling.

“What’s the matter?” Dance asks then, with his hands cupped around the cardboard box, hugging it. That box has been hugged before. Drin hands him each careful section of his meager piles of pictures, watching him put them away again. He touches Dance’s shoulder.

“These are impossible to replace. Would you like me to get them scanned in, so you can send copies to your parents? Send some to your grandmother? Maybe send them some new ones from us, go take pictures of the garden here, too?”

Dance chatters happily through the entire scanning process, telling him about each person in the picture they’re working on, about their nasty childhood nicknames–like his own nickname, which may be an old custom but is often very funny–and their weird tastes in clothes and their annoying children.

Drin carefully adds in all of the information Dance gives him. When he asks how old some of the nieces are, and Dance doesn’t know, he records that too. “I can try to find out more for you, if you like,” Drin offers.

Dance laughs. “You know some guys there?”

“Yeah, and not just in Seoul. GIs who got married over there and stayed. Take a look at this, what does that say?” He gets Dance to pick out computer hangeul symbols to match up what’s written on the prints by hand, and to give him translations. They aren’t informative, just names and numbers, as if this is part of a larger series.

“You know what would be nice,” Drin says quietly, trying not to let any of the inner feelings leak out, trying to speak calmly, one of the hardest things he’s ever done. “You could copy the emails that each person sent you early after your arrival here. Attach those with the email scans of their pictures, so you see the person together with what they sent you. Send those to your grandmother. I bet she doesn’t have all of them, and she’d enjoy seeing what you wrote back to everybody.”

“Oh, she would!” Dance says, eyes wide.

“You could ask her permission first, say you’re sending it for her family history albums. I mean, who wouldn’t want that one email of the cousin talking about her first grandbaby, that’s beautiful.”

“Our Drin, you’re brilliant!” Dance says, and kisses him on the cheek.

Drin burns two CDs, late that night. One of them will go to another office in another state. Nobody will be surprised to learn that Drin might go on investigating his lover’s family. Certainly Bud Innes will be interested in the details of just how Dance’s relatives are tangled in that company’s operations. His invitations to Korean businessmen have been targeting several companies, family associations, who operate in similar ways.

Cut off as he is, Dance has no way to know the kind of trouble signaled by company markings in the background of many of the senior members of that family.  He’s unable to learn the current details on his own family’s social and financial obligations in that association, and Drin is not going to share it until he’s sure of it, and maybe not even then.

The activity is also great cover for sending teslamomma results of his searches on that other guy from murder scene pictures.

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3 thoughts on “Family Snapshots”

  1. Yeongju is one of the South Korean cities associated with the surname Ahn.

    As Wikipedia notes:

    In the traditional Korean clan system, which is still the basis of family registry in South Korea, each clan is distinguished by its bon-gwan, the notional ancestral seat of the clan…

    …The 2000 South Korean census counted 468,827 members of the “Sunheung” Ahn clan (순흥안씨, 順興安氏). Their ancestral seat is in modern-day Sunheung-myeon, in Yeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do, South Korea. They have enjoyed “blue-blood” status as nobility (Yang-Ban) since their earliest history in the Koryeo (Koryo) Dynasty and throughout the Chosun Dynasty (July 1392 – August 1910)…

    …Yeongju is also home to a large Novelis Aluminum plant, employing approximately 1000 workers. This plant provides flat-rolled aluminum sheet products to customers throughout Asia.

    1. More info from Wikipedia:
      Novelis Inc. is a Canadian company headquartered in Toronto involved in aluminum rolling and aluminum can recycling. It was spun off from Alcan’s rolling division and incorporated in January 2005. Novelis has executive offices located in Atlanta, GA. On February 11, 2007, the company entered into a definitive agreement to be acquired by India’s Hindalco for U$6 billion, which makes the combined entity the world’s largest rolled-aluminium producer. This also makes the company a member of Aditya Birla Group.
      On May 15, 2007, the acquisition was completed with Novelis shareholders receiving $44.93 per outstanding share of common stock. As a result the stock is no longer listed on the TSX and NYSE

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