He Was Trying to Say Something and He Couldn’t Get It Out

Kaj Tanaka

When I get home from school, I find my dad sitting in the living room with an Old Style in his hand. He says it’s only his second and I say okay. He says he got off work early today, which he sometimes does, and I’m like sure okay. He looks bad, and I don’t want to be there, but I can see he wants to say something. There’s this box on the table. “This is all the letters your mom sent me when I was in Iraq,” he says. “I don’t want them anymore. I was thinking of burning them today but I thought you—” He pushes the box away and reaches for his beer.

You’re born, you have a dad, you have a mom, you get older, you lose them, maybe somewhere along the way you have kids of your own, maybe someday they lose you. When they tell you that story, it sounds easy, but none of it is a straight line.

“You might not think you want to read them,” my dad finally says to me. “But this is—this is the person she was, who you didn’t know. You’re going to have questions. You got to hide these somewhere in your room. Read them when you’re ready. Otherwise, I’ll burn them. I can’t have them around anymore. Understand?”

He gets this look he gets when he’s drunk, like a kid. I can see he’s about to cry, so I take the box and go to my room. I hear my dad in the kitchen, cracking another beer. I open the box; it’s just letters, just like he said, handwritten on little pieces of paper with envelopes and postage stamps. I can’t read them or look at them more than to just see what they are; I put the box under my bed and sit there for a while.


It’s getting dark, and I’m out back of our trailer where I practice taekwondo. No one who lives in the trailer park can see me back there. My dad and I made a sparring ring and there’s a pull-up bar. I’m running through kicking combinations in the twilight when the screen door opens. The porch light comes on, and my dad comes out. He’s wearing athletic shorts; he’s holding the two pairs of blue boxing gloves he used when he was the welterweight kickboxing champion of his army company.

“How about we go a couple rounds before it gets too dark,” he says.

I ask him if he isn’t too drunk for sparring, but he says he’s fine, so I say sure, and he comes down the steps. The ring is a 12 by 12 meter square, which is Olympic regulation size.  Dad filled it in with a load of this soft, firm sand he got from work.

I step out of the way, and my dad garden hoses down the sand so it doesn’t get everywhere, his thumb over the nozzle.

We start off light. I show him a couple of the kicking combinations I’ve been working on. We use the gloves like kicking pads. He picks the combinations up quickly and then improves on them. He shows me a couple of moves and watches my technique. He tells me I need to work on my recoveries. Pull your foot back to the ground, he says. Don’t let it hang there like you do. What you really need is more leg strength. He says he’ll see if he can find some ankle weights for me. We throw combinations back and forth until he says he’s warmed up enough.

It’s almost dark, and we can only see by the florescent porch light. The air is warm for spring and the frogs and the night insects are singing, and you can hear the cars on the highway. The stars are coming out.

When we start sparring, it’s obvious my dad is drunker than he’d seemed when we were just kicking around. His reactions are slow. I’m tagging him all over the place. He’s still giving me advice like he’s in charge, but he doesn’t know anything, I realize. He’s so obvious when he tries to come at me, and I just step out of the way. I might as well be sparring the sandbags they put up during floods down in Fargo, and then in my head I’m like, fuck this, and I give it to him hard. I catch him square in the chest and knock him on his ass. He’s surprised and he looks up at me. I tell him to get up, and he gets up, and then right away I knock him down again.

Kaj Tanaka is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston. His stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the fiction editor at Gulf Cost. You can read more of his work at kajtanaka.com and tweet to him @kajtanaka.