- onJuly 16, 2015
- Vol.28 Summer 2015
- byCheon Myeong-kwan
- Modern Family
Tr. Park Kyoung-lee 2015177pp.
Half-asleep, I heard the sound of someone laughing and talking. When I opened my eyes, the television in the living room was on, and a giant of a man was scooping chicken stew from the pot while watching a comedy. It was quite chilly, but he was wearing a shortsleeved shirt, and his pot belly hung out from below. His fleshy mid-section sloshed about every time he burst into laughter.
Man, what a sight. Watching him lap away at the pot of stew, I found myself growing distraught.
This oversized man was the firstborn son in my family, otherwise known as my brother Oh Han-mo. Age fifty-two and weighing 260 pounds; a pervert with five criminal convictions including assault, rape, fraud, and theft; a mentally retarded freak… All in all, a good-for nothing. In his youth, he went in and out of prison like it was home. Then, a few years ago, he left for Cambodia to start a latex business and returned penniless two years later. He crept into Mom’s place at some point, and three years have passed since.
After finishing the stew he began scraping up the bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Since I’d last seen him, he’d turned into a fat and bald middle-aged man. Age had caught up with him. As I sat up on the sofa, he sensed my presence and shot a glance at me.
“What’re you doing here?” he asked, still scraping at the leftover stew. (The crust at the bottom is tasty!)
"I’m staying here.” The words fell out of my mouth on their own. If I planned on staying, I suppose it’d be better to get it out in the open.
“Here? You?” he scowled and asked in an aggressive tone. He seemed to think an invader was entering his territory.
“Why not? Can’t I stay here?” I shot back with my head held high.
Brothers reunited after two long years, and we glared at each other. It was the epitome of absurdity: a turf war between two middle-aged men who’d failed in life.
When I was young, he was my worst nightmare. He studied at a notorious technical high school; instead of books in his schoolbag, he carried a file, a scraper, and a steel triangle. These tools were used in class for practical training but also wielded as lethal weapons if need be. Being dim-witted by nature, he wasn’t cut out for studying, but when it came to using his fists, he was a legend, even in that infamous school of his. At that time, he was nicknamed Hammer, in reference to the large hammers that are used for crushing rocks at construction sites. Like a bull seeing red, he lost all capacity for reason when provoked. He’d start throwing just about anything within reach, including bricks. One time, I was what was thrown at his target. True story.
Growing up, I was beaten countless times by Hammer. He gave me nosebleeds, broke my teeth, and even slashed my face. I always wished that he’d end up dead. For all I cared, he could have been beaten to death in a fight or hit by a car while in a drunken stupor. I longed for him to disappear. Now, tens of years later, he was still alive and standing right in front of me.
As anticipated, he made the first move. He flung the pot right at my face. “What are you staring at!”
Hammer was a step ahead of me in anything that involved fighting. The pot smashed into my face, and I wavered. I see you haven’t lost it, Hammer!
I couldn’t back off now. There was no place else on earth that would take me in. What’s more, the one person who didn’t deserve to live here was my brother. The money we received from Father’s death was enough to get ourselves a larger place, at least a thousand square feet. After persuading Mom to give him his share of the money, he squandered half of it on opening an adult video arcade. What nerve he had, trying to kick me out of a house that he never even partially owned.
I completely lost control when the pot struck my head, sprang up and flew at him like a missile. I flung my fists forward and roared like a mad man, “Damn you! Why should you give a fuck when it’s not even your house? Fuck!”
Hammer seemed to hesitate slightly as I went hurtling toward him. Then, like the seasoned fighter that he was, he pinned me to the floor and started trampling on me. He’d aged, but so had I. Over the years, alcohol had taken its toll on my body.
“Are you out of your mind? I was going to let you off easy, but that’s it. You’re dead meat!”
Hammer stomped on me mercilessly. As he was beating the crap out of me, I grabbed onto his trouser legs. When he lifted his leg, I slammed my head right into his groin. He let out a loud “argh” and rolled onto the floor, hands clasping his crotch. Not wanting to lose this chance, I sat on his belly and flailed at him with the pot. He screamed while blocking the pot with his arms, and eventually threw both hands in the air as a sign of defeat. “Hey, alright, alright. Stop it!”
I stopped and glared at him, fuming. I got off his belly and popped a cigarette in my mouth. Scraps of chicken stew had been smeared all over my clothes, and I could taste the salty blood that gushed from my nose. Looking around, I saw that the living room had been turned upside down from our little scuffle. Hammer, who had been lying down to catch his breath, got up and released a long burp.
He spoke jeeringly, “Fancy you wanting to move in. Director Oh must be down in the dumps, eh?”
He called me “Director Oh” when being sarcastic.
Just then, Mom opened the door and entered. Her eyes widened at the sight of the mess in the living room. Like a kid snitching on his brother, Hammer reported, “Mom! In-mo, that asshole, wants to move in!”
Mom hesitated for a moment before giving a nonchalant reply, “We have an extra room, so what’s the big deal? It’s not like the house will come crashing down.”
Had Mom sensed that I was in a dire state? Hammer watched in great disappointment as Mom walked into my soon-to-be room. She seemed to have made up her mind. “I’ll clear out the clothes, while you move the other stuff out to the veranda. Clean up next time.”
I was slightly confused by Mom’s attitude but went into the room and did as I was told. Leaning on the door jamb, Hammer sucked on the empty spoon in his hand and mumbled broodingly, “Damn. That asshole shouldn’t be allowed in here.”
Then he clenched his buttocks together and ripped a loud fart.
It’s been a month since I moved in with Mom. Everything has changed. Almost as though I were in a foreign land in a different time zone, I lost my grip on reality. Even while watching television, smoking, or sleeping, it was like I was in someone else’s skin. I was always in a daze, like I’d been drugged, and my intestines seemed to have been sucked out of me. Yet, I felt strangely at peace. Whatever had been choking me before had released its grip, and my heart’s violent thumping subsided.
I slept for more than twelve hours a day, as if I’d not slept a wink for the past ten years. I spent most days asleep, getting up only for meals. In the rare moments when I was awake, I sat on the sofa and watched television or walked along the railway with a head full of thoughts—disconnected fragments that didn’t last long. I did ponder my crisis and the bleak future ahead, but such thoughts left my head after a night’s sleep.
Mom was as quiet as ever. She didn’t ask a single question about how my filmmaking career was going or what had made me move back. Between making her rounds selling cosmetics, she always remembered to prepare my meals. I was like a silkworm. I ate what Mom prepared and crawled back to my room for more sleep.
One time, Hammer grumbled about the house reeking of fish as he walked in. Mom had just fried a large salted mackerel. While sitting at the table eating my bowl of rice, I was struck by a sense of déjà vu. The same thing had frequently happened in our house a long time ago.
No one else in my family, including Father, liked fish. Because I enjoyed mackerel and hairtail, Mom would cook fish especially for me, even when the rest of the family complained. I suddenly realized that the dishes Mom laid out on the table every night were foods that had been my favorites since I was young. Mallow soup and Korean lettuce kimchi, salted clams and potatoes in soy sauce, dried whitebait—these were all dishes that Mom remembered as my favorites, even after more than twenty years. Feeling a tingle at the end of my nose, I bowed over the table and poked around with my spoon.
I weighed myself at the bathhouse and saw that I’d gained seven pounds. Still, it was less than a fraction of Hammer’s weight gain. I turned around and saw, in the mirror, a middle-aged man with sunken eyes and every other part sagging. Looking at my reflection, I was reminded of something told to me by a woman I’d first met my junior year in college: “From the naked bodies of women at the bathhouse, I have some idea about how they’ve lived. History is clearly written on their bodies.” My eyes searched the mirror for traces the bitter years had left on me. It could be something—or then again nothing—but life seems to leave deeper imprints on the bodies of women than on men. The woman who’d told me that had stretch marks on her abdomen from two pregnancies. She was embarrassed by the scars, but there was a time when I was in love with her soft and abundant body, once swollen with life.
How’s she getting by in Canada? I wondered while I was bathing. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. We’d met through the university’s film club; she was small, inquisitive and lively. She used to write scripts in Chungmuro, but her youthful liveliness and passion for films faded with marriage, children, and age. She turned into a moderately realistic and lethargic housewife. Through her, I watched the course of a woman’s life. We had sex twice a month, but this never complicated our relationship. We knew how to keep a distance from each other and did it well.
Five years ago, she emigrated to Canada with her family. She called me a few times after that, but I was too preoccupied with the toughest period in my life. Did she mention something about changing her name to Catherine? I left the bathhouse and walked through the market, reminiscing about the times we shared. I regretted that I’d never actually reached out to her.
About two miles behind the apartment houses, behind a low hill, there’s a small reservoir. Almost empty and surrounded by overgrown weeds, the reservoir itself is useless, but visitors can enjoy the fresh air and a pretty good view from its elevated position. The reservoir probably served as a source of water for the town’s vast granary before the new city was built. Now, it’s a deserted place sought by adulterous couples for their shady affairs—or by helpless bums like me.
I walked along the bank of the reservoir and saw dandelions poking out from the yellow grass. At the end of the bank, I sat down and lit a cigarette. There were no shadows in sight, and it was dead silent all around. Clouds fluffy as cotton floated in the sky, and the whitlow grass sparsely distributed along the bank swayed in the wind. Perhaps because I had just taken a bath, my body felt as light as a patient discharged after a long struggle with illness. It was a peace I had not experienced for a long time. Looking at the heat haze glimmering above the water, I, for some reason, felt like crying.
Then, I noticed an empty soju bottle lying on the grass. Several more bottles, probably left behind by springtime picnickers, rolled about below the bank. My throat burned with a sudden thirst for alcohol. I remembered that I hadn’t had a drink in more than a month. I’m not sure whether I started drinking because my life wasn’t working out or whether it was the other way around. Whatever the case, I’d spent more time drunk than sober since the divorce. I’d misbehave when drunk and often blacked out. There were times when I got worried that I might end up an alcoholic, but this was forgotten as soon as I began drinking. I drank until I could hold no more.
Once, when I was lying in my room with a bad hangover, I saw a large insect crawling over the sheets. I reached out to grab the creepy creature, only to find myself groping at thin air. A mirage. I was having my first attack of delirium tremens, and I was suddenly afraid. Driven by a twinge of desire to live, I was gripped by the fear of dying alone in an empty room. I had no intention of dying in such a miserable and meaningless way. Looking back, Mom’s phone call asking me to come over for chicken stew was a rescue signal I’d received while standing in the desert of death. I instinctively followed that signal, and that was how I’d come to survive and bask in the warmth of spring.
pp. 15 - 21
Cheon Myeong-kwan is a novelist and scriptwriter. He has received the Munhakdongne Novel Award and the Kusang Young Writer Award. His books have been translated into English, French, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese. English editions of his work include Modern Family and “Homecoming.” Modern Family was adapted into the movie Boomerang Family.