Winner : Terrain.org 8th Annual Contest in Fiction
The cumulative rumbling of the box fan in the master bedroom usually awakened him at 3:10 a.m., or so the iridescent blue numbers of the old GE clock radio indicated. And in the throb of that fan his memory coursed again over his wife’s calm explanation at the end: It’s just like child birth. You remember I was very anxious, but once I found someone who could explain each step of the process, I just relaxed and everything went swimmingly. It’s just like that now. I can see the steps, watch for the signs and everything falls into place, so the pain is predictable and I can medicate for it. And when my urine is strongly tea-colored I know it’s the end. And it was just as she said, he thought from the middle of their Beautyrest queen bed. He rested on the ridge that had separated them, hoping to wear it down so the mattress over time would be flat once again. It was uncanny how much more she had known about everything. How skillfully, how evenly, she understood endgame.
In the morning he went downstairs, fed the cats, retrieved the morning paper from the newly painted front porch, and over a cup of Irish breakfast tea, reread the delicately inked letter from Korea: “It is truly remarkable that Mr. Kim said he knew you. He said you shared kimchi with him right after the war and wanted you to know he remembered you. Please visit him if you ever come back to Pusan. He saw your picture in Asia Marketing News.” A note obviously written by someone else. It was hardly likely Mr. Kim knew any English—perhaps by his dutiful wife, if he had one.
She signed the note, “Adele.” Not likely a Korean, but he did remember in the barracks tent there was discussion of a Korean hooker who was designated Adele by the 18-year-old troops who visited her just before the truce in midsummer, 1953. And he remembered Mr. Kim, the pugnacious guard at that jail in Pusan who had knocked him down and kicked him twice in the stomach, flooding the dirt floor with the pint of shochu he’d drunk. When he got his head up out of the vomit, Mr. Kim’s baton splattered his front teeth back into his mouth. No sooner had the fresh blood driven out the scent of the puke when Mr. Kim’s baton was cradled under his chin and yanked back so that he instantly rose to his knees and then to his feet in blind, blinking desperation to save his larynx. Mr. Kim spun him around and then in a smiling moment head-butted him in the nose. Then he rammed the end of the baton into his sternum, dumping him down again in the dirt. Over the next three hours he swallowed teeth, blood, and vomit while his amazed buddies mopped him with their torn shirts.
Pain clarified everything: lesson learned. That led her to understand each step—pain was the flashlight identifying each bit of indoor-outdoor carpeting on each step into the eternal cellar. He couldn’t stand, nor could she. But she smiled just as Mr. Kim smiled at the prospect. To pilot her through endless darkness, he knew, he would have to kill Mr. Kim.
Her last month was spent analyzing the 43 years of their marriage. Something he said, or some look he gave her, triggered a standard recitation: I should never have stayed with you. I didn’t understand then that I never existed for you. No, you made me a figment of your imagination, and if I didn’t conform to that image you tirelessly erased me. Why did you do that? Why couldn’t you actually see me? You need to examine that. If you don’t, you won’t ever have actually lived.
When Mr. Kim came back he carried a large ceramic jug filled, it was immediately apparent, with fermented cabbage and pounds of garlic, as well as pulverized dried red peppers. He set the jug on the dirt floor. Then, with his baton he smashed the side of the jug so that the kimchi spread with wondrous odor in a widening circle of slush dirt. “Your meal!” he shouted in near perfectly rehearsed English.
The letter’s innocent itemization, “you shared kimchi with him,” wasn’t exactly accurate. Perhaps it existed only in Mr. Kim’s memory. Or was Mr. Kim a comedian with a big-nosed interpreter note-writer reliving his jokes? Amanuensis Adele. The record should be set straight. The note actually fulfilled.
He would fly to Pusan, find a small ceramic jug and fill it with kimchi, carry it into Mr. Kim, smash it in front of him, shout, “Our meal!” and then kill him by cutting his throat. Or maybe by driving four fingers into his larynx. It would be simpler and more effective to use a knife. He remembered reading that the Buddha answered his imploring disciples that yes, he could teach them how to walk on water, but it would take years, and wouldn’t it be easier to take a boat? A knife was made for cutting and not erasure.
When the front stabilized at the DMV and his tour was nearly up he’d been sent down to Pusan to oversee bodies for shipment back to the states. Pusan was the jumping off point back to the world—for the inert and the lithe alike. Each day he slowly and even lovingly loaded white plastic body bags into gray pine coffins. Each night he wandered around the entertainment district of the city, near the docks where he worked, sampling one small bar after another, more and more deeply attached to the cylinders of strong shochu considered the emblem of male maturity, more and more mesmerized by the Korean phonetic characters of the menus he couldn’t initially read but soon enough could sound out perfectly and so become a welcome foreign mascot at a number of small, almost family ventures living off the GIs—the living “Joe” who had come to save them from Kim Jung Il’s marauding minions. He liked the mud streets and thatched huts that juxtaposed cement apartment houses, the hasty hangars tossed up by the Americans in anti-Communist frenzy. Most of all he liked the dizzyingly open possibilities of wartime.
In the last month of life, her itemization of his failings had litany consistence. Everything needs to be open-option with you, she said. All I can count on is your commitment to whim. Never a joint venture or true planning—always preserving the option to change everything in a trice. Why? Let me elaborate: because fundamentally you have no empathy. You are the supreme solipsist, narcissistic to the end. Oh, let me correct that. You can feel empathy so long as it meshes perfectly with your own feelings. But if there is exact duplication, why then the care and concern is near epic. But the slightest deviation and what ensues, let me tell you, you slimy bastard, is erasure!
Aboard the KAL flight to Seoul he couldn’t resist perversity. He asked the lithe stewardess, “Is KAL still slicing into Russian air space to save jet fuel?” But her confused response, smiling of course, faded into the rumble of the jet engines over Sakhlin Island. Sakhalin Island or the middle ridge of the Simmons Beautyrest queen mattress.
“Are you hungry?” the stewardess answered.
“No, but I need help reserving a train down to Pusan.”
“There are many flights,” she answered. “The airport is not near the station. I could get you a flight.”
“I prefer the train. I want to see the country up close, but not too close.”
Intimacy was always your bugaboo, she said often. You function well enough with anyone at a distance, and kept at a distance, but we inhabit this tiny space (like the first class section) day in and day out, and we keep each other company, don’t we? But you only keep company with your weird projection of me, not me. And shortly you will have spent all this time with me and not known me. Doesn’t that make you sad? Worse yet, you won’t have known yourself. Surely, that has to bother you. Apart from your projection of me I might be a person you could actually love, not the apparition of your endless, thoughtless, unquestioned conjuring. Wouldn’t you like to find that person, love that person?
Oh yes, he thought, these trains don’t equal those in Japan. Not as smooth, not as soundless and never quite matching the numbers on the side of the cars with the numbers on the platform—unthinkable in Japan. And still filled with cigarette smoke. On the other hand there were more hills to slice through, more rivers to cross, and a much more impatient and vocal clientele. People actually argued here. All those quiescent years in Japan and here couples barked at each other as if life could be no other way.
He was reassured only when he saw a Daimaru department store in downtown Pusan. For years he’d shopped Daimaru in Osaka. There was wonderful predictability—groceries in the cellar floor, bargain ceramic dishes on the top floor. Narrow escalators linking everything. On the third floor, in kitchen equipment, he found the best knife for Mr. Kim.
“Ceramic edge. Never dull,” said the clerk, a short and stocky woman perhaps 25 years old and wearing some kind of orange apron, with marvelous English diction. So much better than what he’d heard in Japan.
“I need it to gut a human being,” he said, smiling.
She seemed to absorb the words and responded, “Good for ducks.”
“I need it to cut a man’s throat,” he said again, confident she didn’t grasp what he meant.
“It’s very sharp and stain-proof,” she answered.
“He’s a very old man and I bet his throat is very tough.”
Although he was certain she didn’t follow what he was saying, he was startled when from her apron she produced a shining piece of nylon rope, flipped it on a nearby cutting board and with three swift strokes severed the squealing strands into two pieces.
He wondered if the knife could cut the coils along the Beautyrest ridge.
He slowly ascended to the top floor and threaded his way between aisles holding bins of tiny dishes like so many ceramic giant seagull droppings. He passed the rice bowls, passed the handless tea cups, to the “English tea section,” and stopped among sugar bowls with tops. He needed something very small and cylindrical, suggestive of the huge pepper urns that he remembered on the balconies of every Pusan apartment in 1953. Something so emblematic as to summon memories of violence and vomit. But the English bowls were too squat, and eventually he had to settle for a very small sugar bowl that at least was the requisite deep brown color. The sides were fragile enough that he was fairly certain a swift flail of the knife’s thick handle would splinter the dish and the kimchi purchased in the grocery section would flow out before Mr. Kim’s astonished eyes.
In the grocery section he delighted in asking for 200 grams of kimchi using Japanese, said slowly, as if to compensate for imagined ignorance—ni haku gramu, kudasai. But the clerk behind the counter casually tossed one tiny scoop into a plastic bag, weighed, labeled, and handed it back, saying, “What else?”
At St. Paul’s Silver Housing Complex, Mr. Kim was confined to a wheelchair. There was a bar across his lap, and periodically he strained against the bar, as if to stand up.
The nurse said, “He wants to move around, but sometimes he’s too violent.”
“I can believe that. I’ve experienced that a long time ago. Are you Adele?” I said.
It seemed he was destined never to know Adele in his life. So best to get on with it.
“I’ve brought some kimchi to share with Mr. Kim. Maybe it will stir his memory.”
“Kimchi is very usual here.”
“I understand that, but I’d like to share it with him privately. Back in his room.”
Without comment she steered the chair down two halls and into a tiny room with gray linoleum on the floor, gray walls, and a window with swirls of brown dirt. He could see the grassless field of an elementary school through the dirty window.
“Please feel free to leave. We’ll be fine. If there’s a problem, I’ll come and get you,” I said.
She didn’t respond immediately and seemed to be checking his expression. It seemed she was about to comment, as his wife often did, that he’d gone glossy, distancing himself from whatever they were discussing—invariably her challenges to his attitude or behavior. “I will be nearby,” she said, leaving the room.
He pulled up a metal chair and seated himself directly in front of Mr. Kim. Then he lifted up the narrow Formica-topped tray attached to the chair and placed it on top of the restricting bar.
“Do you remember me?” he said softly, setting the squat brown kimchi bowl on the tray. “I swore I’d kill you some day, if I lived through your beating, and here I am to execute that promise. Do you understand that?”
Mr. Kim didn’t look up. He crossed and recrossed his hands under the tray. Something like mucus dribbled out of the left side of his mouth.
“You were the toughest son of a bitch on the police force, weren’t you? You loved kicking the crap out of GIs, didn’t you? So now’s here one come back to cut your fucking throat.”
He took out the ceramic knife. Holding it by the blade he decided a backhand motion would most decisively smash the kimchi bowl. But he realized the breaking bowl might summon help from beyond the room. There might not be time to reposition the knife in his hand and finish off Mr. Kim. With his left hand he upended the bowl, dumping the top and the kimchi out on the tray. The fiery cabbage juice dripped off the tray into Mr. Kim’s lap. His hands rubbed the juice and he brought his fingers quickly to his mouth. At the first taste he smiled, sighed, and then said, “Sank you!” Then his head slumped down again, and more mucus came out of his mouth, now rose-tinged.
“Of course I couldn’t kill him,” he said.
Of course you couldn’t, she answered. Passive-aggressives can’t act, except in moments of exceptional rage. It was all so predictable. At the climax you’d move away from self-discovery. Something would distract you—blessed distraction. In another second you’d erase the whole adventure. And now there’d be no one to call you back. You’d fashion that other you: wandering among Pusan nightspots, or listening to the low beat of the window fan. And there’d be no one to call you back.
“Oh, call me back,” he cried softly, kneading the loose sheet across the Beautyrest middle ridge.
At three in the morning his daughter called. He knew even before he groggily picked up that Cora would be finishing her day teaching in Tokyo, probably waiting for the 98 bus to take her back to Meguro, and probably amused that she’d be awakening him some 12 hours behind.
“I thought we agreed to do this only on the weekends,” he said before she could say, “Moshi, moshi.”
“I figured you’d be up anyway. Aren’t you? Even if you weren’t, it’s good to break your routines and be reminded somebody cared enough to wake you up.”
“I will remember that, thankful to the end.”
“More morbid thoughts, eh?”
“Some morbid thoughts. Yes. Some. It comes with the territory.”
“That’s precisely the point. Marlene and I were talking it through last night. It doesn’t have to be you alone, mooning over mom’s death. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Oh, but it does. If no one mourns you, you’ll never rest in peace.”
“Yeah, I read that somewhere, but that’s not the important thing. You’re alive and Mom never imagined you’d be a basket case wailing the night away for your partner.”
Partner lingered in the static sound of phones, gently lifting upward as if to sanctify something he knew was not all that special, even in the sad distortions of reminiscence.
“Are you there?” Cora asked.
“Certainly. I was caught by your use of ‘partner.’ I never thought of your mother as a partner. Although, now that I think about it we surely had our law-firm moments.”
“Any relationship does,” Cora said easily.
“I’m not fond of ‘relationship’ either. Surely there wasn’t any, for a long, long time.” The automatic hostility of his tone surprised him. And in the static on the line he was thousands of miles away in Florida, 20 years ago, watching as Cora and Marlene wrestled, scratching, yanking, slugging each other. In an amazing hostile hug they fell, shattering the glass coffee table incasing shells which fractured in a terrific skittering, clacking sound on the cold terrazzo floor of their little bungalow, a cold that suddenly funneled through his numb feet, nearly clamping his present breathing.
He said, “I know you speak from direct experience, and I got to watch it and pick up the pieces, didn’t I?”
“Anger is part of grief,” Cora countered. “We still want you to come back over. We can redo the touristy things—Hakone, Meijima, the Noto peninsula, Kyoto. Or the Namba night scene for old times. We could visit the places we lived, when things were better.”
“When things were papered over.”
“Papering over sometimes is all that we have together,” Cora countered again.
“Does Marlene concur?”
“She doesn’t think in our patterns and that’s a blessing and why we’re still together.”
“You’re a lucky girl.”
“I am indeed and you can share in it. Come over.”
It was a neat trick she had learned from her mother: the quick slide over the abyss by pretending it didn’t matter. All that need be attended to was the quotidian extent of immediate logistics. Heartbroken? Try to catch the 5:05 kyuko from Jiyugaoka station. Want to dredge betrayals from the past and savor savageries never taken back, never answered? Decide between rye and multigrain rolls, or discuss the relative merits of Irish breakfast versus Earl Grey tea. Sobbing with grief? Here’s a sweater. At the entrance to the abyss, in the thrall of sudden recognition that incalculable emptiness has a wondrous, dark falling quality to it, and despair’s parachute has only thin cords climbing the wind—the canopy torn away. At that instant he realized that a lot of keepsakes are fake. He said, “Have you noticed that?”
“A lot of memories are fake.”
“No kidding. A lot of artistry is fake. Maybe grief is fake. Maybe not. Come over and we can sort it out.”
“The three of us. You should be used to it. Whatever else Mom was. Decide now. Don’t think it over. Decide right now.”
Decision time in Japan, he remembered, is always lengthy, but implementation is always rapid-fire, near instantaneous. Consensus takes time. In America the opposite was true. Decisions came lickety-split but implementation took forever. Simple truisms to live by or better yet, ignore. Better still: dismiss. The business guides were full of cross-cultural truisms.
Decide now, echoed from Tokyo as he slumped back in the middle of the Beautyrest. He liked the way the individual coils yielded to the lumpiness of hip and knees, and in that targeted yielding he remembered lying on the unyielding deck of the ferry down from Osaka to Hiroshima.
Of course she listed Miejima first of things to relive. The three of them uncomfortable but so enthralled beneath their common blanket, heads on green rubber pillow bricks (for a deposit of some yen amount he couldn’t remember). He did remember they had learned from the other passengers to stand close together and wrap the blanket around all of them. Then they could with modesty shed clothing for the coming communal sleep.
Then they slumped down carefully sheltered in the scratchy wool, feeling each others’ naked legs, suddenly a very close family—perhaps the only time he realized what might have been possible, but surely passed away in the ferry’s quiet slicing of the placid Inland Sea. And Cora, nudging him, started laughing as only four-year-olds can, a convulsing celebration of their absurdity on the dank, hard deck. An insane underwear pajama party.
He wondered if Cora shared that memory with Marlene and worried that she would invest it with perversity. He knew Marlene, in escalating tones, savaged every family memory from which she by definition had been excluded. She found taint in every fond sharing, and it occurred to him on his Beautyrest that indeed every memory had a diseased tag waiting for the right neuron to pass by, as effortlessly as the ferry that night eased toward Hiroshima.
He found himself suddenly saying to Cora, through the static, “Do you remember that resort with the Gone With The Wind theme?”
“Yes, that’s the name I couldn’t remember. Scarletto, with fake columns. Do you remember what happened there?”
He waited for an answer but one didn’t come. “The owner asked you which was the most beautiful carp in the pond out front before the columns,” he said.
“Let’s not relive it.”
“Do you remember how heartbroken you were when the very same carp still wiggling was brought to our table cut on its sides so you could pull off pieces of its very fresh flesh?”
“Why are you bringing this up?”
“Because I just realized I’m the carp. I’m the carp. And if I come back over, you and Marlene will just pull off the flesh, bit by bit by bit. I wouldn’t last an hour. Oh maybe an hour but not a full day, not a week. And you wouldn’t even know you’re doing it. Just seeing you would do it.”
“I thought we’d gone through enough therapy to avoid the victim game, Marl and I.”
“You’re right, so let’s avoid it altogether.”
“Now you’re supposed to hang up. And we end up never talking again.”
“Ah, you are you’re mother’s daughter.”
“Oh, Jesus! I really did think we’d all gone through enough therapy to get by that congruence. Marl says we feast on it. I thought she was pouring it on a bit, but I guess she wasn’t.”
Given his silence, she asked, “Are you hanging up?”
“So come over here and we’ll hang on together. Or Marl and I will chew up your carcass.”
“It’s enticing, but it’s not going to happen.”
“Well, think about it, will you?”
Did he hear relief in her voice? He often heard relief in the voice of women in his life as he promised to leave.
On his Beautyrest, coils sponging up and down, he felt his life ricocheting between soft legs beneath a scratchy blanket or shriveling, pooling-downward human beings partnered with him on that swaying slack rope over the bottomless canyon of memory colored pastel one moment, only to be dissolved by the next in squid-ink black.
Cora’s judgmental voice called him back. “Okay, Dad, we’ll try again tomorrow, about the same time. Why don’t you research the costs of getting over here.”
Oh, I know the costs, he thought, and they’re entirely too much. “Yes, I’ll do that,” he said with, he felt, a certain charming disengagement in his tone, a savoir such as only the truly exiting could summon.
Oh, exit now my heart, he thought, amused by the wracking self pity it implied even now in his supremely safe Beautyrest confinement. I’m on the very crest of the ridge, he thought. As he slid his hand across the cooling sheet toward the slope she had forced into the mattress, he was certain she was there, tenderly mocking his tears.
Header photo of modern-day Pusan, Korea by Voidbias, courtesy Pixabay.