Korean Short Stories
Yoon Sunghee Unfinished Words 하다 만 말 Translated by Chung Eun-Gwi
Information This work was previously published in New Writing from Korea . Please contact the LTI Korea Library. firstname.lastname@example.org
Unfinished Words After I ended up with a lot of time on my hands, I often sat on the rooftop rail and played mind games, reeling backwards through my memories. I recalled spotting a 1,000-won bill on my way to school and quickly trapping it under my foot (Having stood there waiting until everyone else had gone, I was late for class.); being dragged by Mother to Chinese calligraphy lessons (“Sir, I have a question. How do you write the second syllable of ‘jogging’ in Chinese character? The character 朝, meaning morning, is used for the first syllable ‘jo,’ right?” Showing off always led to humiliation.); killing an hour locked inside the bathroom. (I never found out who had locked that door from the other side.); learning the word ‘consternation’ from the pages of a comic book (Encountering unfavorable situations, I always shouted ‘Consternation!’ and fell over in a pretend faint. This habit disappeared the day my head hit the corner of a desk and I got a cut.); how I loathed hearing the sentence, “Let your brother have it.” (I wanted to answer, No, but in spite of myself, I would say, Yes.); and how I wanted to shout, ‘I am not a baby anymore!’ whenever anyone treated me like one (I knew very few words back then). Each time I rewind the reel and play it back like this, there comes a moment when I encounter the oldest scene that remains in my memory, the very first. I am seated on the back of a tricycle that’s stuck in a ditch. There’s someone sitting in front of me and I infer that it’s my older brother, since the sweater that this person is wearing reappears in one of my younger memories. In this scene I am six or seven years old and running somewhere, wearing the sweater with the maple leaf pattern. Brother struggles to pull the tricycle up out of the ditch. The harder he tries, the deeper his right leg gets sucked in by the mud. One of the little rear wheels keeps spinning, hiked up in mid air as it is. I stare at the spinning wheel thinking I would like to stick my finger between the spokes. If anyone were to ask me, ‘What’s your hobby?’ I would answer, ‘To sit on the rooftop rail and watch the sinking sun as I think of the spinning tricycle wheel.’ The whole family sat on the sofa, expecting Father to return. While watching them, I grew curious about the first memory that each of them keeps tucked away in their minds. Grandfather even has the figures on his charge account from fifty years ago filed away in his head, so he might be able to remember all the way back to his days in
diapers. No matter what, Brother always kept a notepad handy. As he watched television, ate a meal, or listened to Mother’s nagging, he would take out a pen and make note of something. Perhaps in one of his notepads his first memory is recorded. Does he remember making the tricycle fall into the ditch with me on it? As for Mother, well, I don’t expect much. I just wish she would remember not to let the broth pot on the gas oven boil over. Brother yawned and flipped channels with the remote. “Just watch the soap,” Mother said. “I can’t stand that girl,” Brother said. “It’s not like you will be dating her, right?” At Grandfather’s remark, Brother opened his pocket notebook and wrote something down. “That old fortuneteller said you will, at the least, pass the bar exam.” Grandfather stroked Brother’s hair. The story goes that when Brother was born, Grandpa sought out a famous fortuneteller to have his fortune read. The day I was born, he downed a bucketful of rice wine at the pub instead of visiting a fortuneteller. The visit Grandfather paid to the fortuneteller at the time of Brother’s birth was not his first. He had done the same when Father was born, the first son in the family in three generations. Grandfather slit open the hem of his sleeve to insert the paper with the baby’s Four Pillars of Fate—the year, month, date and hour of his birth—then sewed it inside. He then started out in search of a fortuneteller named Han who, he had heard, lived in the city of G. All Grandfather knew was the name Han and, as it turned out, G was a bigger city than he had imagined. In the end he decided to stop at the first fortuneteller’s house he spotted. A man who referred to himself as Mt. Baekdu Bodhisattva sat dressed in white traditional hanbok. Grandfather wrote down his own Four Pillars of Fate to show the fortuneteller and made a proposition. If you guess correctly whether my parents are still living or not, I will hand over to you half of my entire fortune. But if you guess incorrectly, I want you to find the person I am looking for. Then Mt. Baekdu Bodhisattva gazed into the paper for a long time and said, with a tilt of his head, I would rather not say. Let’s agree that I lose. Then Mt. Baekdu Bodhisattva drew Grandfather a map. Han the fortuneteller had left G to live the life of a mountain recluse in the town of T. Rumors abounded that Han had even refused one of the most powerful politicians when he traveled all the way to the mountaintop to consult him. Mt. Baekdu Bodhisattva tipped Grandfather off as to the secret method of getting through to Han’s heart. And he gave him this information at no charge. He said that after taking a look at Grandfather’s Four Pillars of Fate he wanted to help him out of pity. Grandfather set out walking, map in
hand. It took him over a day just to make it beyond the city limits. He passed through towns C and L. “I got lost in the mountains and ate nothing but arrowroot for a week, I tell you.” It was a man foraging for wild ginseng who had saved Grandfather after he collapsed in exhaustion. The man had dug up three precious roots of wild ginseng that very morning and he instructed Grandfather to eat the smallest of them. Soon reinvigorated, Grandfather took advantage of a moment when the man had stepped away to chomp down the two remaining roots of ginseng. Grandfather had been the first son in the family in two generations, after all. Ever since he was a little boy, he had been told over and over, until the skin around his ears turned rock hard, that it was his family duty to take good care of his body. When the ginseng-foraging man chased Grandfather, threatening to slice his head off with his sickle, Grandfather promised to repay the man by helping him find no less than ten roots of wild ginseng. Grandfather set out that day to forage for ginseng with the man. “More than anything else, a man should keep his promise.” Brother slowly shook his head from side to side, and withdrew deeper into the sofa. I shook mine along with him, a show of support. Everyone who knows Grandfather knows that he never found a single ginseng root. We know this because before the ginseng-foraging man died, he came to see Grandfather and collect the money he was due for the three roots of ginseng. All those years ago, after Grandfather and the ginseng-foraging man parted company, Grandfather returned to his search for Han the fortuneteller. On the very day that Grandfather finally arrived at the door to Han’s shack, a grand party was underway back home in celebration of the 100th day after the birth of the family’s first son in three generations. Without a word of greeting or explanation, Han reached down and removed the shoes from Grandfather’s feet. He carefully inspected Grandfather’s rubber gomusin, then instructed him to take off his socks. The stench from his feet filled the shack. The odor was so strong that a cat that had been dozing in the corner leapt awake and took off, only daring to come back inside the following day. Grandfather’s rubber flats had grown worn and tattered while he roamed the mountains with the ginseng-foraging man. Han held up the shoes with the torn heels and asked Grandfather. What is it that you are looking for? “It worked, this secret that the Mt. Baekdu Bodhisattva had let me in on. I had to walk every step of the way without buying a new pair of rubber shoes no matter how badly they tear.” And this was how Grandfather had succeeded in getting Father’s Four Pillars of Fate read. Yet despite all
the hardships that Grandfather had endured, Father’s fortunes indicated nothing special. Han’s advice to Grandfather was that his son should not launch any new ventures after the age of 20. Stay put and collect rent, that was the life cut out for him. “If he had not foretold longevity, I would not have returned home. I deserve some filial devotion, at the least, this late in life, if I can’t expect anything else from him.” The clinking sound of keys was coming from the front door. “We should switch to a keypad lock,” Brother said. “I can’t memorize numbers,” Grandfather said. While Father worked the key into the lock, the rest of the family stayed sitting on the sofa, now with their heads turned to watch the lock rotate right to left. Father walked straight over to the sofa and took a seat, squeezing in between Grandfather and Brother. His clothes reeked of cigarette smoke. “What is this smell?” Mother fanned her hand in front of her nose. Ever since she lost her mother to lung cancer, she had been overly sensitive to smoking. When her mother—rather than her father, a lifelong heavy smoker—was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer, Mother had her mother’s family cedar chest, her mother’s oldest, dearest piece of furniture, taken out to the yard, where she set it on fire. Her mother had promised Mother that, when she died, the family chest would pass to her. If you had to smoke, you should have done it all by yourself deep in the mountains somewhere, Mother had shouted at her father’s room. Through the paper door his shadow was vaguely visible. He had a long tobacco pipe in his hand. After this loss, whenever Mother smelled tobacco burning, she was reminded of the old cedar chest, which had been passed from mother to daughter for centuries since the Joseon kingdom. She never again watched “Rare Valuables” on TV. For twenty years, Father has changed jobs countless times and launched and failed more than ten new businesses. Grandfather used to shout at Father that he’d been cut out for a life of collecting rents and that he should stay home rather than do something. And each time, Father would retort, If I were destined to do that, wouldn’t I have a store to rent out? And you know what, that’s some sweet life. “So how did it go?” Grandfather was asking Father, who was still struggling to build a life collecting rents. “We will have to move. I lost this apartment,” said Father, snatching the remote out of Brother’s hand and turning up the volume. Grandfather and Mother took turns speaking but none of it reached Father’s ears. Brother began writing something down in his notepad.
Each of the men on the sofa consulted his bank book. Grandfather had a mere 265 won left in his account. The 25-pyeong apartment which Father had lost had been purchased with Grandfather’s life savings. Brother had over 2 million won in his account. He said it was money he earned working part time jobs. “Haven’t I told you time and again to concentrate on school work?” Mother slapped the back of Brother’s head. Mother’s primary virtue was that she was never alarmed, not by anything. Ever since the day she was nearly killed at the age of 5 by her alcoholic neighbor swinging a sickle, Mother has endured much upheaval in life. When I was lying in my hospital bed, Mother had said to me, Don’t worry. Mommy’s heart is made of steel. Mother headed for the bedding closet and proceeded to remove the comforters one by one. As she slipped the cover off of a heavy cotton-filled comforter that she had probably brought with her as part of her dowry, a bank book fell to the floor. As she stripped the cover off a second comforter, the seal fell out. “Should I start taking off all the covers?” Father asked, but Mother ignored him. “This money is enough to get us a room somewhere.” Mother flipped opened the bank book and showed them the balance. The total amount was small, but it would cover the cost of renting a one bedroom place. “I’m a student preparing for college entrance exams. I have to have a room to myself,” Brother shouted. “You must be tired of laboring over the same books, has it been four years now?” Grandfather tutted. He then paused for a bit before speaking again. “I heard that there are matchmaking agencies that cater to clients seeking remarriage. It will be all I ask of you that you pay my registration fee.” As Grandfather saw the situation, the quickest way out of this trouble was for him to get married again, this time to a rich lady. Before Father lost this apartment paid for with Grandfather’s savings, Grandfather’s dream had been to find a good cook for a wife. It was Father’s doing that Grandfather’s matrimonial dreams had been transferred to a rich lady. “I won’t give up my drums. Never! I bought them with my own money.” “I couldn’t give up the wardrobe in my room. It was your late mother’s oldest and dearest possession.” “But if you get married again, you will have to get rid of it anyway.” “Honey, do you think we will be able to keep this sofa?” “Father, we have to sell everything that can be sold. We will need at least two rooms, no matter what.” “Are you saying that I will have to share a room with him? When he stays up late studying every night? I couldn’t possibly do that.” Mother silently rose and stood facing the wall.
She had never had a room all to herself, not once in her life. As a child, she had shared a room with her mother; to attend junior high, she had moved into the room her elder brothers were renting in town; and when she worked at the factory, she had shared the dormitory room with other girls her age. “Let’s get a two-bedroom place even if we have to pay a little extra monthly rent,” Mother said, her face still turned to the wall. “You three men will share one room. I need a room all to myself now.” While the rest of the family was sleeping, Father went out to the neighborhood bathhouse. Soaking in the tub, he thought about the fact that he had never once received a body exfoliation treatment. He ended up staying in the tub for so long that his flushed face did not cool down until breakfast. Grandfather chewed a slice of radish from the soybean paste stew as he said, “How can anyone eat at a time like this?” “I have never received a body exfoliation treatment in my whole life,” Father murmured. I saw a grain of rice shoot out of Father’s mouth and followed its downward trajectory into the briny bowl of water kimchi. After breakfast, Mother meticulously applied sun block to her face and neck while Father retrieved a pair of sneakers from the deepest, darkest corner of the shoe cupboard. Grandfather and Brother went outside to see them off. “Two bedrooms!” “Make sure there is room for my wardrobe.” One of the flats did not have its own bathroom (That is one thing I will not give up, Mother said.); another came with a living room that was much too small (Lying on the sofa and watching TV is my only happiness, Father said.); the flat that they liked was ridiculously expensive; and one in an affordable price range was a basement flat that got not a ray of sunlight (The boy is depressed as it is. We can’t have him cramming for the exam in a basement flat, the two agreed.). “Why don’t we look at more places tomorrow?” Father was about to rest his hand on Mom’s shoulder but stopped himself. On their way back to the lost apartment, Father told Mother there was something he wanted to show her. Mother followed him to the athletic fields adjacent to an elementary school nearby. Father led Mother to a bench and had her take a seat. The night before, Father had smoked two packs of cigarettes sitting right there on this very same bench. Now, Father was pointing at a small pine tree on the other side of the field. “Do you see something red over there? I sat here smoking last night and I’ve been wondering what that red thing was all day.” “Go over there and find out for yourself then.” “No, I prefer to think of it as a red nut.” Twenty-five years ago,
Mother might have been touched by a moment like this with Father. Through all those 25 years, Mother had rapped her chest with her fists whenever she was touched like this, and just seeing a couple in love on a TV soap could move her to draw her fists to her chest. This time Mother took Father by the hand and led him across the athletic fields. An unidentifiable object was hanging from one of the pine branches. It looked too heavy to be hanging from the tree. “Could it be a motorbike?” Mom said. “What do you mean motorbike?” Mother drew a small motorcycle in the dirt with her finger. Then she drew a circle around the front section of the bike and said, “I think it’s this crosspiece, only without the handles and the light.” The red thing hanging from the pine tree really looked like a part of a motorbike, as Mother described it. Father lifted both his hands in the air and struck a pose as if he were clutching the handlebars on a motorcycle. “A scooter, probably.” Father’s shadow crossed with Mother’s, forming the letter X. Father moved his body in such a way that the two shadows overlapped chest to chest until Mother moved and separated the shadows. Father cupped his ears with his hands to make their shadows disappear. “But what is a motorbike part doing in a tree?” Father’s earless shadow wavered. “Maybe someone tried to jump over it on a motorbike.” Mother’s shadow kicked Father’s, which in turn settled and remained still. At that very moment, Grandfather and Brother were watching TV, seated side by side on the sofa. On the screen, a reporter was eating steamed swimming crabs at a beachside restaurant on the West Coast. “Looks delicious, doesn’t it?” “Yes, looks good.” As the sun set behind the school building, my parents’ shadows disappeared as well. But in the final moment before they disappeared, Father was about to tell Mother he was sorry. In spite of himself, however, he said, “Who do you think would have been riding around on this motorbike?” Grandfather and Brother were up and standing, waiting at the door for Father and Mother. The instant he heard Father’s keys being taken out of his pocket, Brother opened the door. “Let’s go to eat some swimming crabs.” Grandfather was carrying a piggy bank that Mother always kept in a corner of the cabinet under the sink in his hand. “Swimming crabs are low in fat and high in protein and essential amino acids. They are especially effective for controlling high blood pressure.” My parents could not close their gaping mouths. They were amazed to hear such intelligent words streaming from the mouth of their son.
Brother called the TV station to ask about the exact location of the restaurant where the reporter had chomped and sucked on crab legs until every last trace of lipstick had been erased from her lips. “This will be on me,” Grandfather said, getting in the car. “Fine, but do we really have to drive all the way out to the beach? Can’t we just go some place in the neighborhood?” Father was tired. “They charge only half the expressway toll for this car.” Grandfather went on to add that people like us who don’t get to eat out very often should splurge on the real thing and make the most of every little chance we get. As we drove along the West Coast Expressway, Mother fell sound asleep. Strangely, Mother always felt comfortable and relaxed whenever Father was behind the wheel. It was in Father’s car that she found the cure for the insomnia that I had caused. Please help me get some sleep, Mother used to murmur at the break of dawn, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. Father would drive Mother down the Seoul-Busan Expressway. Although Mother resented many things about Father, she was grateful for the kindness that he had shown her, speeding along the Seoul-Busan Expressway night after night. The seaside restaurant was easy to find, since they had hung a banner at the street entrance. The family was led to a table in the corner of the first floor dining hall. “Let’s get steamed crabs.” “I want soup and a bottle of soju.” “This place is expensive. Can’t we just get a steamed seafood platter instead?” When the waitress came around with water bottles, Grandfather placed the order. “Steamed swimming crabs, large platter, and a large seafood soup.” Let’s just get a small one, Father had first suggested, only to be rebuffed by Grandfather, who criticized that Father would never be able to run a successful business with such a petty mindset. This must have made Father angry because he poured himself and only himself more soju even though he could see that Grandfather’s glass was empty as well. It was Brother who finally reached one hand out to pour soju for Grandfather while the other hand was busy cracking a crab claw in half. Mother did a quick count of the female and male crabs on the platter. Father ignored the crabs and just spooned into the spicy seafood soup. Mother mixed some rice with the bits of remaining flesh inside a crab shell and placed it in front of Father as she said, “Don’t you go giving me trouble, getting drunk on an empty stomach.” The waitress came over to see if our table needed a refill on any of the side dishes. “How come this platter comes with more male crabs than roe-filled female ones? And could we have a bottle of palmleaf raspberry wine.” “And hawthorn fruit wine for me, Sansachun brand,” Brother
quickly added. When only a single crab leg was left on the plate, the rest of the family offered it to Grandfather. Everyone was full, but no one could refuse the last course of rice stirred into what remained of the soup. After emptying three bowls of rice, my parents went out to the darkening beach and stood drumming their tummies to the rhythm of the surf. Brother stood under a streetlamp and jotted down something in his notepad Grandfather snuck up behind Brother, trying to steal a glance at what he had written but Grandfather could not read anything that small with his rheumy eyes. At the beach entrance, there was a large warning sign. Do not drink and swim. Lewd behavior prohibited. As he read the sign, Brother let out a laugh. He rummaged for a coin in his pocket and began scratching one of the consonants off “선정적,” the word meaning lewd. Finally, the consonant was erased. Grandfather read the warning with the missing letter: Sentimental—“서정적”—behavior prohibited. “Looks like we’d better spend the night. Can’t seem to get sober.” Father’s red shirt flapped in the wind, like Superman’s cape. Father found us a place called World Motel. “It’s that way. Nice name.” Father walked on ahead. The motel’s rooms were named after different countries. The most expensive ones were France and America. The employee recommended China or India, which could accommodate four or more guests. “I don’t like China. I want to sleep in Italy,” Father insisted. “That one is for couples,” the hotel clerk said. Father stood firm that four people could fit in. But when Mother asked who would sleep in the bed and who would sleep on the floor, he gave in. “Which is farther away, India or China?” Grandfather asked Brother. Everyone agreed with Grandfather that if we had to choose between the two, we would prefer to sleep in the country that is farthest. “Is Austria the same as Australia?” Mother asked, and the clerk forced a cough, trying to suppress laughter. Once he’d gotten the family settled in the room, he called up his girlfriend to have a laugh at their expense. In bed that night the hotel clerk would have a nightmare horrible enough to make him never want to fall asleep again. In the India room the air was filled with a peculiar incense scent. Perhaps it was this strong scent that made Brother picture in his mind the vivid curves of the coil that the family used to burn to repel mosquitoes when he was a child. His head began to spin, spiraling in on itself like a snail’s shell. “If you vomit, I will never take you out to eat again.” “But it’s better to throw up when you feel
dizzy.” “What kind of a man are you, unable to handle your alcohol.” Brother vomited so much that he had to flush the toilet three times. While this was going on, the rest of the family spread out the floor bedding and lay down, then the three of them fell asleep watching TV. Grandfather began to snore. Soon, Mother was talking in her sleep. Father ground his teeth. Brother found it impossible to sleep. He sat up with his back against the wall. We must get a two-bedroom place, no matter what, he mumbled. Even in her sleep, Mother responded to Brother’s words. “All right, all right, I got it.” I settled myself down next to Brother. His head was so full of worries. He always slept in a corner of a room, worried that the overhead light might fall from the ceiling and land on his head. He once screwed up on his mid-terms exams because he was worrying about the possibility that his pregnant teacher might give birth to a deformed baby. He could not bring himself to wash windows for fear that a pane of glass might break and cut his wrist. Why worry so? I whispered. Grandfather suddenly stopped snoring and sat up, to take a blinking look at his surroundings. “What is this place?” “It’s Heaven.” Brother laughed. Once he recognized where he was and what was going on, Grandfather quipped back. “I think I’ve made it to the right place, but are you supposed to be here?” When Mother woke up, Grandfather was gone. Brother was asleep, slumped against the wall, and Father was pooping in the bathroom. “Did you see Father?” Mother called to the bathroom. “Maybe gone out for a walk? Old folks like him tend to wake up early.” Father had no idea how Grandfather always slept in. Grandfather never rose before 11 in the morning. “You think so?” “No, no way.” My parents circled the tiny room. Father moved from right to left, while Mother moved from left to right. Brother had woken up and begun to inspect the stickers on the refrigerator. He altered a syllable in the word ‘night snack’—‘야식’—changing it into ‘야심’—‘ambition.’ As he considered what he might do to change the word soju, he heard the chirrup of the hotel door bell. Grandfather came through the doorway with a sheaf of paper in his hand. “Come sit down.” Everyone sat around in a circle. “I went to an internet café and got this printout. I chose only the best-reviewed restaurants, nothing less than 4 stars.” The restaurant listing he’d printed out took up a full 16 pages. Grandfather separated out two pages and handed them to Father. One page described a restaurant specializing in hangover soup with cow’s blood bean curd, and the other described a place that serves soybean sprout
soup, also an effective hangover cure. “I read that their hangover soup is excellent.” Father and Mother were at a loss for words. They were shocked to discover that Grandfather knew how to surf the web. The cow-blood soup place was an hour away by car. The whole family was hungry, their stomachs burning from last night’s drinking, so it was agreed that they would go to the much closer bean sprout soup restaurant. The three men hurried to the bathroom and to take a group shower. Mother applied lotion from the bottle on the dresser. But where could the bottle cap have gone? No matter how many times she looked, Mother had to leave without finding it. The bean sprout soup was no good. You can’t get the good stuff unless you seek out the authentic joints, I tell you, Grandfather complained. “But it tastes better than when I cook it,” Mother placed a huge radish cube from the kimchi on top of her rice. Although she was quite efficient when it came to managing a household, Mother was a terrible cook. The soup might not have been very good, but everyone emptied their bowl. “Let’s go home.” The whole family piled back in the car. “Still I wonder why I’m not full, though.” “Do you think maybe that cow’s blood soup place is as good as they say?” “I don’t know, but if that place is no good either, I know I will never go on-line again.” Father made a quick U turn at the next traffic light. Grandfather’s printout kindly included a detailed road map. Father found the place without even coming close to getting lost. “This place is better than expected.” “I’ve never tried cow’s blood curd before.” “You ate it all the time when you were little. I just didn’t tell you it was cow’s blood.” Halfway through the meal Mother excused herself and rushed off to the bathroom. “That’s a bad habit my wife has, going to the bathroom when we are in the middle of eating.” When Grandfather had finished eating, he spread out his printouts on the table, darkly stained with kimchi juices. “Let’s see what other places we should try.” Father snatched away the pen that Brother always keeps in his hand except when he’s sleeping or eating. Then he used it to mark the list with Xs and Os, flipping through the pages one after the other. Once he had separated out all the Xs, he had five pages left. “Okay, we’re off. Pollack stew, it is,” he said, starting up the car again. The soybean sprouts had been nice and crisp. Grandfather had enjoyed finishing off a bottle of soju by himself. Father blamed Brother. “What have you been doing all these years, never even learning to drive?” “Too busy memorizing all the different ways we eat walleye pollack, is that it? Fresh, frozen, dried, shredded into flakes, tied up at the snout into bundles of four.” As the family headed out
the door on the way to yet another restaurant after polishing off the pollack stew, everyone was surprised to see that the sun had yet to set. “It’s still daylight?” Brother took out his cell phone to check the time. Goodness! Everyone shouted at once. After three meals, it was still before noon. Since there was plenty of time, Father drove along at a leisurely pace. The car was going 50 kilometers an hour even in a 70 km zone. Other cars honked from the rear but Father paid them no mind. “Hold on a second!” Mother shouted. Father hit the brakes. “What is it, did we pass the freshwater shrimp place?” Father studied the map, squinting his eyes. “No, no. It’s further on.” Mother told him to back up anyway. Father switched on the emergency flashers and put the car in reverse. Mother was pointing at a three-story building behind us. “There! That’s a table tennis parlor, isn’t it? I’m so full I need a game of table tennis, or whatever else we can play there, before I can swallow another bite of food.” A man with a crew cut was playing table tennis all by himself. “How’s that guy doing that?” Grandfather visually inspected the ping-pong table, with the far side covered in netting. Ping-pong balls popped back out at you from the center of the big net. “Goodness, it’s even possible to play table tennis all by yourself.” Before she met Father, Mother had a boyfriend who was a table tennis player. Whenever she had a bout of regret for having married Father, she would take ping-pong classes for housewives at the local community center. “It’s called a ping-pong robot. It even has a double spin function,” Brother said. The ball-popping machine reminded Father of an indoor batting cage. It had been on a winter day. The woman had taken Father’s arm. Are you good at this? She asked over the loud crack of aluminum bats coming from the batting cage. Before Father held the bat, the woman rubbed her palms together to warm them before wrapping her hands around Father’s frozen hands. Watch closely now. That day, Father hit countless homeruns. He recalled the fireworks he’d seen on TV. The sparks seemed to have moved into his heart. On the day he decided to break it off with the woman, Father had gone to the batting cage and hit until he got blisters on both palms. After all, he was a father of a daughter who was often sick and of a son who always walked with his head hung low. When the blisters had almost healed, Father took his son and daughter to the opening night of a fair with a title too complicated to remember. There were celebratory fireworks at the fair that first night and Father had been enthralled,
unable to keep his mouth from gaping open as he watched the sparks in person for the first time in his life. “Now, how should we divide up the teams?” Grandpa got ready to do rock-paper-scissors. “I’ll be on the same team with Mother. We’re a married couple.” Brother was against this idea. “Then our team will lose for sure.” “This old man will just go play alone over there then.” Mother’s words closed the debate once and for all. “Father and I will be at a relative disadvantage, I think. Our average age is 48 but it’s only 46 on your team.” So the family match began, playing to determine which team would pick up the check at the next meal. The rest of the family had no idea that Mother had taken ping-pong classes for housewives. Grandfather and Brother just stood there while Mother smashed shot after shot right by them. Finally, out of frustration, Grandfather swung his paddle in the air and said, “I got no complaints about my daughter-in-law, except that she can be too gruff. Can’t you show a little tenderness? After all you’re the woman of this family.” Mother said nothing. She just swung the paddle even harder. The ball ricocheted off Grandfather’s forehead. “What kind of a man are you, no athletic skill at all. If we lose, you’ll be the one paying the bill for the whole meal.” Brother couldn’t even serve properly. “Grandfather thinks of no one but himself.” At the sound of those words coming out of Brother’s mouth, Father grabbed the ping-pong ball and threw it at him. “You insolent little brat!” The ball missed its intended target. “You’re no better than Grandfather” Brother was right. Father never showed the slightest curiosity about the lives of others. He was only interested in his own life, never anything else. Without exception. Perhaps this explained why every last one of his business ventures had ended in failure. “Look who’s talking! You don’t even have any friends. Who’s ever heard of a boy your age without any friends to speak of.” Brother tossed another serve in Father’s direction and this one succeeded, the first time since the match began. But Brother’s serve was weak and Father easily got it back over the net. “I don’t know what friendship is. Shouldn’t friends influence one another’s lives for the better?” Father could not answer. He had several times been swindled by his friends and he thought perhaps this had an affect on his son. “Just play ping pong. You are three of a kind in my eyes.” Grandfather and Brother failed to win a single set. I badly wanted them to win at least the last game. When Brother was about to make contact with the ball, I blew on it, just once. At first it did not seem like the ball would make it over the net but then it suddenly picked up speed and landed on the opposite side. I blew on the ball again when this time,
Grandfather hit it. The ball fell with a spin right between Father and Mother. My parents seemed to lose heart when the balls kept changing course abruptly and touching down just within the white lines even when it seemed certain that they were headed off the table, out of bounds. “See, it’s all just a matter of luck.” Father gave his serve a halfhearted hit, drained of energy. The moment the ball was about to cross the net, I gathered all the energy I had and reached out. I wanted to show my family that it was not about luck. The ball came into my grasp. Seeing the ball stopped, seeming to hover in mid-air, Mother shouted, “Honey, it’s her, this proves it. Our little girl’s here.” Father pressed his hand to Mother’s forehead. “No fever. You feel okay?” “I think I’ve seen too much.” Brother blew at the ball still floating in mid-air. The ball did not budge. His warm breath was not palpable. “Is it you? If you’re there, shake the ball.” I shook the ball. The family sat in a row, side by side on a bench. Brother bought four sodas from the vending machine. “Don’t be so cheap! What about your sister?” Brother ran back and bought one more. Mother set the drink down on an unoccupied chair. “How have you been?” “Don’t worry about us. Your father’s business is going very well.” “Can you see my scar? It’s still there.” Brother stretched his right arm toward the soda can that now occupied the chair. It was a scar I couldn’t remember having seen before. “I see you in my dreams sometimes,” Father said. “So do I,” said Mother and Brother, in the same breath. In Father’s dreams, he often took me to see the fireworks again. He took me to Han River, the East Coast, and the Jamsil Stadium. Father always lost me in his dreams, in the thrall of the pyrotechnics. Then he would run around in circles looking for me, jumping over people as if they were hurdles placed there to slow him down. Brother’s dreams would go like this. He sees the two of us grown to adulthood. He is the father of four children. Quadruplets. He sees me cradling an infant just learning to control its neck. Five babies begin crying as one. This is dreadful. Dreadful. Brother repeats these words in his dreams as he changes the babies’ diapers. Mother is dead in her dream. At her funeral, her son, his hair now white, weeps sorrowfully. Beside him, the quadruplets, now fully grown, also weep. Many people came to Mother’s dream funeral, even me. Of course Father came and Grandfather came as well. Gathered together for Mother’s funeral, everyone worried about Brother. What would he do now, a motherless son? Father and Mother embraced their son. “Wicked child!. You never visit me in my dreams.”
Grandfather shouted at the soda can. The man who had been practicing with the pingpong robot looked their way, his eyes wide. Brother comforted Grandfather. “She didn’t want to scare you, that’s all.” Mother and Father added, “It was probably your age that kept her away.” “Yes. You might think that she had come to take you with her.” Brother put a ping-pong ball beside the soda can on the chair. “We’re right, aren’t we? If we are, shake the ball again.” Brother was right, but I didn’t feel up to touching the ball again. Moving an object is not as easy as you might have imagined. “Look at that. Nothing! It’s all my fault. I was mean to my granddaughter for being a born a girl. I’m sorry, child, I’m so sorry.” This left me no choice but to lift the ball, just a little. Their glutted stomachs now recovered, the family to set out once again, this time to try the freshwater shrimps. “She’s been so cramped up trying to follow us around. Let’s let her sit in the front seat.” Everyone agreed with Father’s proposal. Grandfather, Mother and Brother took the back seat. It was after I left that Father had started to frequent the neighborhood bathhouse. With all the steam no one noticed the tears on his face when he cried as he soaked in the tub. When people would run into Father, they’d say, Great complexion. Getting younger everyday. Since he had been going to the bathhouse at least four times a week, it was true that his complexion was getting better and better. Meanwhile Brother had begun to study the stars. Before I left, he had been curious about nothing. But now he’d begun to wonder about the secrets contained in the stars high up in the sky. Grandfather had turned to reflecting on the troubles he had caused his wife when they were young. He prayed that his dead wife was looking after me now. But I had yet to meet Grandmother. As for Mother….She often got cuts on her fingers when she cooked. “You’ve probably never tried freshwater shrimps before.” “Sorry we’re going around enjoying all this good food when you can’t.” “You were always so understanding, even when you were little. It was like you were my big sister.” I reached out to touch Mother’s chest. Little by little, rust spots had begun to grow in Mother’s steel heart. If she were to swallow just one more tear, her heart would be completely rusted out. Gathering what remained of my strength, I took hold of Mother’s heart and squeezed. “Ou!” Mother bent forward. “What’s wrong?” Father looked back through the rear-view mirror. “My chest feels all choked up. Strange.” I released my grip. “Let’s head home so we can get you to a doctor.” Father pressed down on the accelerator. I slipped out of the
speeding car. From a distance, P was approaching. Have you been waiting long? I asked. No, I just got here. P shook his head. Did your Mother go see a doctor? Not yet, but Father said he’d take her, so we’ll see. P and I went off to find the tallest building in the city. From our perch high up on the rooftop, we could see the river bisecting the city. I told P that I felt a little lost out. He didn’t ask me on what. This was what I liked about P. I’d never tried going on a diet, for one. The sun set, painting the river red. You thought I was going to say you’re fine just the way you are, right? P grinned wide, exposing a row of teeth, all rotten. Imagine how much it would have cost to get these teeth fixed—so I’m pretty fortunate, P said. I tried to think of everything I could call fortunate. Behind me, the sun rose. Copyright 2008 Literature Translation Institute of Korea