- The Woman Next Door
Tr. Janet Hong 1999286pp.
The foul stench was coming from the dumpsters. Uncollected garbage piled up like pyramids around the apartment complex. At night, rats came out to gnaw at the garbage. Liquid leaked from the bags, flowed down the asphalt, and hardened in chunks. The man leapt over the stains like an athlete competing in the triple jump event. Dressed in pointy dress shoes, snug jeans, and a white dress shirt with the top two buttons undone, he looked like an amateur cowboy who had just stepped out of a Western movie. He shaded his face with one hand and with the other, clutched a cell phone instead of a pistol. He didn’t run into a single person as he walked to the parking lot. Even the playground was deserted. It was because of the stench and the unbearable heat.
He stopped in front of a car parked neatly in its spot. The car was like a pan on high heat. He flung open the door, started the engine, and put the air-conditioning on full blast. He sought some shade as he waited for the car to cool down. On one side of the lot was a heap of oversized junk—everything from an old refrigerator, stereo, and mattress to even an electric rice cooker. A full-length mirror also stood between the scraps. As though the mirror had been left out in the rain, the varnish was peeling off its frame like scabs. He went right up to the mirror and gazed at his reflection. He puffed out his cheeks, stroked his chin, and opened his mouth wide to check between his teeth. He then curled back his lips, exposed his teeth, and brayed silently like a donkey.
Fifteen minutes later, his car slipped smoothly out of the complex’s gates. The old security guard sat dozing in his booth, unable to fight off the after-lunch drowsiness. No one saw him leave.
To get onto the main road, he had to pass through a 400-meter school zone. Children dismissed for the day began to pour out of the school gates. Street venders who had come in time for dismissal sat on the ground, leaning against the stone fence in front of the school. The children ran across the street and swarmed around stalls filled with helium balloons, baby chicks, and candy. They stood in the middle of the road, not bothering to move out of the way. The car inched forward, only to lurch repeatedly to a stop. Suddenly, a soccer ball sailed over the stone fence, bounced off his windshield, and rolled under the car. It was followed by a tanned boy in a tracksuit who crawled under the car to retrieve it. Another child cut across the street to go after a chick that had escaped, and a herd of children ran toward the ice cream store. He hit his horn again and again. The kids didn’t budge at all. He rolled down the window, stuck his head out, and yelled. The children slowly squirmed out of the way, but as soon as his car moved forward into the small opening, other kids blocked the way, playing a game of slap-match cards in the middle of the road. They were so absorbed in showing their cards and collecting one another’s that they didn’t hear him shout.
Each child was a bolt of lightning. With lightning, there are no warnings. There are only two ways to avoid being struck: lie flat on the ground or put up a lightning rod. He drove with his foot on the brake pedal, wary of lightning bolts that could strike any time from alleyways with openings like the entrance of a maze.
By the time he finally came onto the main road, twenty minutes had passed. He glanced in the rearview mirror. His curly hair, freshly washed and straightened with a hair dryer for half an hour, was still stuck nicely to his head the way he’d combed it, and every time he shifted gears, he caught a musky whiff of cologne from his armpits. A large shopping center was located three blocks away. Should he get his date perfume or earrings? The rest of the afternoon would fly by as he sauntered around the mall, peering into glittering display cases that looked like jewelry boxes. It would then take half an hour to get to Athens, the cafe where they were supposed to meet. He still had enough time to think up a funny joke while he decided on her gift.
Every time they met, she asked for a joke. In the six months they’d been seeing each other, his stock of jokes had run dry. In the “Sparrow Series,” even the last sparrow had met its end from a hunter’s bullet and in the “Big Mouth Frog Series,” the curtain had lowered when the big mouth frog arrived at the public bathhouse that was closed for the holidays. But not once had she laughed. She didn’t even crack a smile, just like the comedian judge on the TV show Make Me Laugh.
He stepped on the accelerator. It was her birthday that day, and he needed to come up with an unforgettable joke. Just as he finally gained some speed, lightning struck again. He slammed on his brakes and watched a motorcycle weave in and out between cars and disappear up ahead. He caught the white letters stamped on the rear trunk that was the size of a ramen box. Man on a Bullet.
He couldn’t let down his guard for even a second. With the rise of these new “quick delivery” businesses, the road was filled with numerous lightning bolts. These motorcycles that could pop out any second were able to race from downtown Seoul to Incheon in a mere fifty minutes. For this reason, he could no longer speed.
The sun beat down. Heat rose from the asphalt. He needed to turn right in order to get to the shopping center. But as he turned on his blinker and sped up to change lanes, something squeezed in ahead. He wrenched the steering wheel, but he felt a thud. A second later, the motorcycle rider landed on the windshield, arms outstretched, instantly thrown off. The car veered onto the sidewalk and crashed into the stone wall of a barbecue restaurant. Struck by lightning at last. The steering wheel slammed into his chest and his head snapped back.
The windshield was marked with blood, saliva stains, and grease imprints from the rider’s gloves. The door didn’t open easily because the hood had crumpled when the car crashed into the wall. After he kicked open his door, the first thing he saw was the crushed motorcycle that had been tossed all the way to the median. Gasoline gushed from the cracked fuel tank. He noticed the writing on the trunk: Lightning Delivery. 675-1234.
The restaurant customers came running outside. They gawked at the car and the motorcycle in turns while still chewing on pieces of meat. Some had rushed out in such a hurry that they didn’t even have their shoes on. He was lucky there hadn’t been anyone on the sidewalk. The cars behind had to screech to a stop to avoid running over the rider who had been thrown into the middle of the road. Drivers stepped out of their cars and stared. The rider was lying on his back. His red helmet was also emblazoned with the words Lightning Delivery and the phone number. A crowd of people had already gathered. Someone flipped up the plastic face shield of the rider’s helmet to reveal a youthful face. He looked like a senior high school student at most. He had a hint of fuzz on his chin and cheeks. As soon as the sunlight hit his face, his closed eyelids flinched.
“Do you think you can move?”
Lightning nodded slowly. Blood was flowing from a deep gash on his elbow. He must have scraped it along the asphalt as he fell. He helped Lightning sit up, taking care not to move his neck. A bystander ran over and draped Lightning’s other arm around his shoulders. Lightning stood up with their help, but as soon as he tried to take a step, he cried out and sank back down. His thighs felt rigid; they were swelling rapidly under his jeans. He looked around for his motorcycle. It had been dragged from the road and was now leaning against a tree guard on the sidewalk. It was crushed so badly that its front wheel was suspended in the air.
Lightning’s face turned pale.
An ambulance arrived. The restaurant must have made the call.
Lightning had broken his left shinbone and fractured his right ankle. His face and arms were scratched up. Because of his swollen leg, the nurses couldn’t remove his jeans and had to cut through them with scissors. His skin had swelled like an inflatable tube, practically splitting open the fabric the instant it was cut. Lightning got an X-ray and waited to go into surgery. They were the only ones left in the hallway.
“Do you have a smoke?”
They were sitting in a non-smoking area, but Lightning didn’t care. He smoked the cigarette right down to the filter.
“What would have happened if I wasn’t wearing a helmet?” He mumbled. Then he started to snicker. “Me, break my leg? Imagine that. I never thought this would happen to me. I thought this kind of thing only happened to special people. But I’ve got to say, it’s been a real interesting experience. Have you ever broken your leg?”
Instead of waiting for him to respond, Lightning kept mumbling. “It’s strange. I can’t feel anything below my legs. My brain tells my toes to wiggle, but they don’t listen. It’s really frustrating. So how do you think my mother felt when she told me to study, but I didn’t even budge?” He started to sniffle. “I miss her. I think it’d be good for people to go through this. They should break their legs at least once.”
He listened with half an ear and kept glancing at the clock in the hallway.
“Don’t worry.” Lightning continued to talk while gazing blankly at a spot on the wall. “It’s not your fault. I might be stupid, but at least I have a conscience.” Lightning chuckled again. “Let’s face it. Today’s just not our day.”
His car was still blocking the way, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk beside Pyongyang BBQ House. Pedestrians glanced at the crushed car and stone wall as they walked around the car, stepping down onto the road and back up onto the sidewalk. The restaurant owner hadn’t allowed the car to be towed away until he returned. The bumper and headlights were cracked and the hood was badly dented. He tried to shut the car door that had been left open, but it would no longer shut. The motorcycle was still propped up against the tree guard. Just as Lightning had said, there was a thick manila envelope in the trunk.
“Can I ask you for a favor? There should be a package in the back. Do you think you could deliver it for me? Our company’s motto is ‘Speed and reliability you can trust.’ If that package isn’t delivered by today—” Lightning had drawn his thumb across his neck, as though cutting off his head. Then as he was wheeled into the operating room, Lightning sat up and motioned him over. “On the package release form, there’s a space below the recipient’s name. He needs to sign there. Don’t forget!”
A truck towed away the car and the motorcycle. There was a deep indent in the stone wall where the car had rammed into it. The restaurant valet who had been standing outside took him into the restaurant. Behind the counter, a woman in her mid-fifties was counting out some change.
“It’s true what they say—lightning strikes on a clear day. I thought we were having an earthquake!” she jabbered. “Our poor frightened customers tripped and fell as they were rushing outside.” She covered her mouth with its half-faded lipstick and laughed.
She made him look closely at the wall. It had small and large stones embedded into the cement. The impact, however, had cracked the cement and loosened the stones. She claimed she had roamed the riverbanks to gather these stones and everyone knew the trouble she had gone through to find the right pieces. She said she would calculate the cost of repair and call him the next day. As he was leaving, she called out, “You’re lucky money can take care of this, but what about my poor nerves?”
To get to Incheon, he first went to Sindorim Station. He hadn’t once used public transit after he’d gotten a car. Although he’d gotten to know every single one-way street and alley in Seoul in the seven years he’d been driving, he was completely lost in the underground subway station. The station was like a maze and the subway map looked as intricate as a tangled ball of yarn. He followed the arrows to the transfer gate but soon lost track of them and had to stop. Whenever this happened, in the midst of all those who were sure of where they were going, he noticed elderly people who were equally lost, or women from the country who looked as though it was their first time in Seoul. He would follow the orange arrows but would soon lose them and start to follow the green ones instead, winding up back at the platform where he had first gotten off the train. He found himself going in circles. There were things in this world that weren’t marked by arrows. Sometimes, the arrows pointed straight ahead, and then suddenly changed directions. When he saw an arrow that pointed straight up to the ceiling, he stood still. He had no choice but to ask someone.
He still had about two hours left. If everything had gone according to plan, he would be strolling around the air-conditioned shopping mall by now, looking for her gift. But because of a motorcycle called Lightning that had popped out of nowhere, his plan was slowly unraveling.
The Incheon-bound train was practically empty. He sat alone in a three-seater away from other people. At a single glance, he could take in the few passengers scattered around the train. Most were dozing with books open on their laps or looking through the window at the passing scenery outside. He studied the package in his lap. It seemed like a book or manuscript of some sort. The recipient’s address had been written with a permanent marker on a large envelope from Dolmen Publishing: Professor Byeon Yeongseok, 435 Dohwadong, Incheon. The words Urgent Mail were written in red and in parentheses below the name and address.
He had never been to Incheon. He had blindly stepped onto an Incheon-bound train, but he had no idea where to go next. It might have been somewhat easier to find an apartment, but instead, he had to find a house with just the street address. He didn’t even know which stop he needed to get off, so he had no choice but to go all the way to Incheon Station, which was the last stop. A piece of paper was stuck on the other side of the package. It was probably the release form that Lightning had told him to get signed. There were some notes scrawled in the margins. There was even a rough sketch of a map next to seven digits that he assumed was the professor’s phone number. At a glance, the map looked like an anchor or the male gender symbol, and the writing was barely legible: Nasan Shopping Center, Dohwadong three-way street, Civil Defense Educational Center, Donghwa Fish and Tackle, three-forked road, right turn, Prosperity Pharmacy, magnolia tree.
Finding the house by consulting the map and notes wasn’t going to be easy. The notes mentioned a three-way street near the fish and tackle shop, but the map didn’t show it. And a magnolia tree? A magnolia tree blooms in early spring and loses its blossoms so quickly that all that would be left now would be thin, bare branches. He tried to remember what a magnolia tree without its blossoms looked like, but he couldn’t. If he wanted to get to Athens on time, he couldn’t afford to wander aimlessly. He felt annoyed at himself for not having refused Lightning’s request.
Outside, monotonous scenery went by and ringtones continued to sound throughout the train. They passed motels with unlit neon signs that faced the tracks. The signs were shabby and dusty.
“Mommy, why does that house have so many windows?”
A young woman and her little girl were sitting diagonally across from him. The little girl had been looking out the window the entire time. It seemed she was just learning to talk; she asked her mother question after question. The motels obviously looked different even to the eyes of the child.
“Oh, that? It’s called a motel,” the mother whispered.
“What? I can’t hear you,” the girl persisted, rubbing her cheek against her mother’s.